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22 Oct 2008 : Column 125WH—continued

22 Oct 2008 : Column 126WH

The responsible, properly acting and democratically elected Epping Forest district council has gone ahead to try to solve the problem of finding places for the Gypsies and Travellers, but it is not allowed to do so in a reasonable and considered way, because the Minister says, “You can’t take time or look at the criteria and try to find places. You must do it now.”

The council has entered into a consultation to produce a development plan document. Consultation is the right way to take the local community along when an exercise of this kind has to be undertaken, but it is meaningless if it is directed by the Government. We now find that edicts are dictated by that unelected, totally undemocratic and unaccountable body, the East of England regional assembly.

All that, because of how it has been undertaken at the Government’s command, is leading to the compulsory purchase of privately owned land. I am not exaggerating when I say that the proposed compulsory purchase of those pieces of land for this purpose smacks of the worst excesses of communist dictatorship. My constituents and I, as well as Epping Forest district council, which I totally support, see it that way.

My constituents have written to me about an enormous variety of problems that result for them both personally and as members of our local community from the Government’s overbearing and dictatorial attitude. Compulsory purchase simply is not fair. I have received some heartbreaking letters from people who have spent a lifetime building up the resources to buy a house. That house and the little bit of land beside it are all they have for their retirement. If the land beside the house is compulsorily purchased, and if Gypsies and Travellers are put on it by the Government, those people will lose everything that they have worked all their lives for. I have every sympathy with them, and the Minister is wrong to ignore them. I am talking not about one family or one person, but an enormous problem, if 96 pitches are to be found in my small constituency and throughout the Epping Forest area.

The impact on our precious green belt, conservation areas and sites of special scientific interest would be enormous, and ancient woodland and indigenous wildlife would be badly affected. When we then consider the increase in traffic flows on unsuitable roads, road safety, listed buildings and their surroundings, the impact on local facilities—particularly the lack of provision in primary schools, GP surgeries, utilities and other transport matters—we realise that local infrastructure is unable to sustain the enforced increase in our local population in those areas.

Added to that, there is the problem of building on flood plains. We have a lot of flooding problems in Epping Forest, which was not taken into consideration in the Government’s criteria and how they issued their orders.

Most of all, I am concerned about how the planning laws will be distorted. Local people feel that there is one planning law for them and another for Gypsies and Travellers. People who want to build a small extension
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to their houses in the Epping Forest area have to go through an enormous number of hoops in the planning procedure—quite rightly.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright) indicated dissent.

Mrs. Laing: The Minister is indicating that he disagrees, but the planning process is difficult because we have in our area protected ancient woodland, a lot of green belt and overcrowding. The planning laws are rightly strict for local people, yet the planning laws for Gypsies and Travellers, who are merely passing through and are not part of our local community, are quite different and much more lenient.

The point is that we want Gypsies and Travellers to integrate in the local community and to be part of the general community throughout the country. We also want to ensure that the children of Gypsies and Travellers are properly educated in our local schools, and that elderly Gypsies and Travellers are properly looked after in the NHS. Therefore, we should be encouraging a degree of integration, but the law does not do so. Instead, by forcing the Government’s plans on a local community, the law sets people apart. Far from integrating, the Government, by dictating rules and laws, go entirely against community cohesion.

We have to live together on this small island of ours, and it takes patience and careful planning to ensure that different groups and people with different interests can do so in harmony. In Epping Forest right now, the Government are putting the local council and local people in an impossible position, and, for the sake of their own political programme, causing upset to community cohesion and to individuals. They have created a problem. The Minister may say, “We can sort it,” but I have to tell him that he is wrong.

4.17 pm

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and the Minister for generously allowing me a couple of minutes to speak. I will take no more than that.

The hon. Lady concentrated on land acquisition for site provision. The Minister will know, having visited Bedford earlier this year, that I am concerned about what happens when provision is entirely inadequate. Several of Bedford’s parks and open spaces have this year played host to a series of unauthorised Traveller encampments—almost weekly from April until October.

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): Order. I am very reluctant to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but it is clear that if he is to be in order, he has to talk about Epping Forest, not his own circumstances in Bedford. I am afraid that this is a very narrow debate.

Mrs. Laing: It might help you, Mr. Amess, and the hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall), if I say that lack of provision is relevant to Epping Forest because if the exercise that I spoke about is not properly carried out, Epping Forest will have the same problems that the hon. Gentleman has encountered in Bedford. Epping Forest has a lot to learn from Bedford in that regard.

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Patrick Hall: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her helpful remarks. The issues that I am raising, although they come from my direct experience, are relevant to Epping Forest and perhaps to a few other places.

I wish to put three things to my hon. Friend the Minister on alternative provision. Alternative provision is part of the answer to unauthorised encampments. I support the restoration of the statutory requirement on councils to make such provision. However, that is only part of the answer, so I want to put three points to the Minister. First, will he consider the point made by the mayor of Bedford borough that the law be changed to allow all local councils—

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): Order. I am very sorry, but I am being strongly advised that we cannot have specific points about Bedford. They can be about only Epping Forest.

Patrick Hall: My points are entirely relevant to every local authority, including Epping Forest. We should allow local councils—all of them—to issue a blanket eviction order with regard to their land so that they do not have to go through the time-consuming, frustrating process that is part of the current law. The Minister has had that point of view put to him before. I believe that such a measure relates to all local councils.

My second point is to ask the Minister to revisit the Briscoe review and consider adopting similar measures regarding trespass that the Republic of Ireland adopted in 2002.

My third point relates to interim or emergency sites that I raised with regard to Bedford, but which would apply anywhere. Is the Minister ready to issue guidance on councils providing emergency sites, pending the proper provision that he seeks?

4.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess-perhaps I should say your over-powerful and forceful chairmanship, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) might say.

I also congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate and the manner in which she advanced the case on behalf of some of her constituents. Again, I thought that her arguments were extremely forceful and somewhat over-powerful.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall), whom I visited earlier this year to talk about the provision of Gypsy and Traveller accommodation in his borough. I also acknowledge the presence of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who has raised Gypsy and Traveller issues on a great many occasions, and I know that it is a subject that really interests him.

If I may, Mr. Amess, I would like to be incredibly unprofessional and wish my son, William, a very happy fourth birthday. I am grateful to the Chamber for allowing me to make such comments.

In many respects, the debate is extremely timely. The hon. Member for Epping Forest will be aware of the examination in public of planning for Gypsy and Traveller accommodation in the east of England. She may be
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aware that the EiP started yesterday in Letchworth and will run until Friday. Using the results of that public consultation, the panel will provide recommendations on any changes to the proposals. The Government will consult on further changes before publishing the final policy in 2009.

I do not want to say a lot about the details of that examination because I am limited in what I can say on the ground of matters being quasi judicial. All I will say is that all interested parties will have the opportunity this week to debate the number of pitches that have to be provided. The process does not mean that provision should necessarily await the outcome of the EiP. Until the regional spatial strategy review is adopted, local authorities should continue to base provision on the latest available information on need within the region and local area in the context of the urgent need for improved provision across the region.

The hon. Lady specifically mentioned green belt and I want to address that directly in the time that I have. I want to be as clear as I possibly can be on this extremely important matter. It is right and proper that we support, maintain and enhance the green belt as much as possible. She will agree that it is very much valued and an extremely efficient planning tool to prevent urban sprawl.

Circular 01/06 makes it clear that Gypsy and Traveller sites are inappropriate in the green belt. Therefore, it is the responsibility of local authorities to manage land provision to meet housing needs, and in an area such as Epping Forest, that principally means managing the supply of land within the urban areas available for redevelopment or with potential for alternative uses.

We may quibble about the figures. The hon. Lady mentioned 96 additional pitches. My understanding was that the district’s proposed Gypsy and Traveller pitch target was 49 to 2011, and potentially 92 to 2021. I must forcefully argue that that is a tiny proportion—just 4 per cent. of the RSS target of at least 2,290 additional dwellings needed in the region between 2006 and 2021.

The hon. Lady spoke very powerfully about the communist nature of this Government. She said that we are over-powerful and dictatorial. I disagree vehemently. The whole point of the process is that local authorities step up to the plate to ensure that they have the evidence in place in relation to accommodation—I mean not just Gypsy and Traveller accommodation, but additional housing for the wider need, as and when it is necessary.

In preparing for the debate, I was struck by some of the comments made by Councillor Anne Grigg, who is planning and economic development portfolio holder. In what I consider the quote of the debate, she said:

Councillor Grigg is a Conservative. I do not want to make a narrow political point here; on the contrary, I am pleased to see those comments and an example of
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mature local leadership on an issue that can raise huge tensions. However, it appears that there is strong leadership on the matter within the local authority, which is a welcome and positive step change in attitude from what there has been in recent months.

Mrs. Laing: Anne Grigg is a very responsible councillor and she is writing what she says. My point is that Councillor Grigg and the rest of Epping Forest district council are not being allowed to handle the matter in a way that they, as a democratically locally elected district council, wish to do because they are being told by the Government in a dictatorial way how it must be handled.

Mr. Wright: Let me address the additional and new site provision framework that we have put in place. As the hon. Lady is aware, local authorities are required by the Housing Act 2004 to undertake accommodation needs assessments for Gypsies and Travellers as they do for the rest of the community with regard to conventional bricks and mortar housing. They also have to prepare a development framework to facilitate identification of appropriate sites. We recommend that that is done in a timely manner.

The presumption continues to be that local planning authorities should identify and assess the need for sites for Gypsies and Travellers, and where that need is identified allocate sufficient land within a development plan document. Any local authority not intending to do so must demonstrate that there is no need and that other means are certain to deliver sites to meet future needs—for example, through clear criteria.

I strongly suggest to the hon. Lady that we need increased authorised site provision coupled with effective use of enforcement powers—my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford and I have already discussed this—and a joined-up approach between various organisations, whether it is the local authority, police or others. If we are to address the problems that the hon. Lady has highlighted, we need to have that identification, assessment of authorised sites and good management of those sites because the whole community will benefit and we will see more examples of community cohesion and communities coming together as she suggested, as well as, ultimately, a reduction in enforcement costs, which is incredibly important.

Mrs. Laing: I simply do not see how compulsory purchase will create good community cohesion. It is tantamount to stealing people’s possessions.

Mr. Wright: The whole process is bottom up. The comments that have been made by Councillor Anne Grigg demonstrate a real step change in attitude in the local authority. There is a recognition that well-managed authorised sites that work in partnership with local agencies can reduce community tension and enforcement costs, which benefits everybody concerned.

Let me finish on an important point. The hon. Lady suggested that there is one rule for the settled community and another for the Gypsy and Traveller communities. I dispute that. There is one rule in this land and that is for everybody.

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Tax Credit Overpayments

4.30 pm

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to launch this debate on tax credits, and in particular on repayments by those who fail to fill in their forms on time. The introduction of tax credits has made a huge difference to thousands of families in my constituency. Tax credits have made it possible for people with disabilities or young children to take on work and improve their circumstances. I am very pleased with the concept.

Across the country, nearly 700,000 children have been lifted from poverty thanks in no small part to the introduction of tax credits, but our ambition to remove 1 million children from poverty by 2010 and eradicate the scourge of poverty by 2020 is a tall order, and every impediment must be removed. The keep the promise campaign rightly recognises that the Labour Government’s achievements have been enormous, but it points out, also rightly, that we must still work towards achieving what we promised.

If tax credits can be criticised, it must surely be on the grounds that they are just too complex. The average recipient relies entirely on official calculations, and it is nigh on impossible to know whether payments are right or wrong. For my part—and I am a pretty intelligent chap—I have not a clue how the formula works. I will not embarrass my right hon. Friend the Minister by asking whether he can make the calculations; his staff certainly cannot. The calculations are made by feeding the computer with myriad facts and figures, and one simply hopes that the outcome is correct.

Unfortunately, the introduction of tax credits was marred initially by computer faults and system failures. That has got much better, but there remains none the less a legacy of victims who, for the most part, simply did not know whether what they were paid was right or wrong, or whether they were overpaid or underpaid. Sometimes rough justice is better than no justice, and I hope that the Minister will still consider how the system can be simplified. A benefit should always have two qualities: knowledge of eligibility and knowledge whether what one receives is right or wrong. It is a simple test that tax credits, sadly, do not meet.

However, the concern that I wish to raise today relates to a specific failure in the tax credit system. It is a regulatory issue, but one that casts families into poverty rather than lifting them out. Through my constituency casework, I have been made aware of several cases—I know that many colleagues have had similar experiences—in which an award has been terminated after failure to finalise within the permitted deadline. When that happens, the whole amount paid during the tax year becomes recoverable, even if the family’s circumstances meant that they were fully entitled to all that they received.

We are not talking about a few hundred pounds. In many cases, sums of £5,000 or £7,000—for some families, that is almost half a year’s income—are being demanded. It is a sign of how widespread the problem is that over 100 of my parliamentary colleagues have signed an early-day motion that I sponsored on the subject. I am grateful for their support.

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