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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 7 December 2010

[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

Gypsy and Traveller Sites

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr Stunell.)

9.30 am

Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): I called this debate to reflect some of the real concern in my constituency about the problem of Gypsy and Traveller sites that have been created as a result of current planning legislation. It is a real problem in South Staffordshire, and regulations introduced by the previous Labour Government caused great resentment among the settled community, as well as the Gypsy and Traveller communities. It is a problem not just in South Staffordshire but in many constituencies throughout the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) had a debate on the issue back in September, between the summer and conference recesses. It was an excellent debate, and covered many of the issues and concerns that people throughout the country have. I hope that some of the issues that were highlighted then will be aired today. More important, I want to hear the Minister's proposals, and what progress is being made.

There is anger in the country about what is not a perceived but a real injustice. There is a view that there is one law for the settled community and another for Gypsies and Travellers.

James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on securing this debate on a topic in which he has taken a keen interest since coming to the House. Does he agree that it is important that it is on the record that within the travelling community there is a difference between Gypsies and showmen, and that any approach by the Government should pay heed to that difference, and the different ways of life and lifestyles?

Gavin Williamson: Indeed. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. There is a distinct difference between the Gypsy and Traveller communities and showpeople, and that was reflected in the previous Government's planning circulars 04/07 and 01/06. It is important that the differences are reflected not in a top-down national policy but in local policies that are adopted and brought together by local authorities to make provision in their areas. There are distinct differences between those two communities, and that should be reflected in local planning and provision.

There is real anger that the current legislation provides a deeply unfair planning system. In many ways, the previous Government tried to do something about that, and introduced planning circular 01/06 and 04/07 with, I am sure, good intentions. They tried to redress the issues faced by many in the Gypsy and Traveller community-low educational attainment, and health problems-but they created a division, not one settled
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Gypsy and Traveller community, and the two communities are often almost at war with each other as a result of injustices.

In my constituency there is already extensive planning provision for Gypsy and Traveller sites. Since 2007, permission has been granted for an additional 30 pitches for Gypsies and Travellers. That may not be many, but there are usually three caravans on every pitch, so the development is substantial. That planning permission was granted for green belt land on which you, Mr Howarth, or I or my constituents would not obtain planning permission for a shed, let alone what is effectively a village development. I hope that the Minister appreciates the anger that imbalance in the law causes, and the inequality between the settled community and the Gypsy and Traveller community.

Thirty pitches is a lot, but the problem does not stop there. There are proposals in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for an additional 16 sites in Penkridge in my hon. Friend's constituency, and in Calf Heath and Wombourne in my constituency. Those 16 applications are with the planning inspectorate. Already, the 30 existing pitches that have permission and have been built have increased the amount of provision in South Staffordshire for the Gypsy and Traveller community by 50%. No one could doubt that the people of South Staffordshire are creating and providing sufficient provision for the Gypsy and Traveller community. Those 16 extra pitches will put an even greater burden on South Staffordshire and, in addition, planning approval will be sought for another 30 pitches. That is an awful lot of extra development, all of it on green belt land that is supposed to be protected for everyone in the country, and to preserve our countryside.

One of those applications, in Pool House lane, Wombourne, is with the planning inspectorate on appeal. It is for one pitch, but it exemplifies the deeply flawed nature of planning circular 01/06. It is for a pitch that is, oddly enough, also on green belt land. I am sure that if I owned the land and asked for permission to develop it, I would rightly be refused. At the planning appeal, Matthew Green, who was once a Member of this House, represented the applicants. The district council had rejected the application, but at the appeal Matthew Green was at pains to explain that there was a need for the site under planning circular 01/06 because the person who owned the land did not have anywhere to live, despite having a home and living in it just a few miles away, and despite the fact that just a few miles away, also in my constituency, Gypsy and Traveller sites in Brinsford and Featherstone have many vacancies. But the argument to the planning inspectorate was that pitches were needed, and that the people of Wombourne were bigoted because they did not want a Gypsy or Traveller site.

What the people of Wombourne do not want is one law for Gypsies and Travellers, and another for everyone else. They do not perceive that as being right, because they believe that green belt land is to protect the whole community, and that laws should be applied fairly and equitably.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument and I am sure that the Minister would not wish to micro-manage individual planning applications in such cases. Does the hon.
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Gentleman accept that there are 4,000 families in the travelling community who are currently in need, and that in spite of the pitches that he claims have been granted in South Staffordshire, that need has not been met? In order to meet local housing need, exceptions are made for the housed community with a policy to allow affordable homes on land that would not normally be granted a development. That principle should apply equally to both the housed and travelling communities.

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) resumes his speech, it might be helpful to remind hon. Members that interventions should be sharp and to the point; they are not an occasion to make a mini-speech.

Gavin Williamson: Although my hon. Friend's intervention was broad, it was also informative. He makes an interesting point and introduces another side to the argument. He spoke about provision, and planning circular 01/2006 was about need. In South Staffordshire-I speak with authority only about South Staffordshire; I could not talk about St Ives, for example, because I do not know about the provision there-we have a ridiculous situation. Last weekend, I took the time to visit all the sites in my constituency that had been granted permission since 2007, and many of them were vacant. Hon. Members may intervene and say that that is the nature of Gypsies and Traveller sites because people move on, but there were a high number of vacancies.

A number of months ago during a debate in this Chamber, I highlighted the ridiculous situation of planning permission granted in the village of Brinsford for a Gypsy and Traveller site on green belt land. That was granted on appeal and developed, but there are not enough Gypsies and Travellers to fill that site. The site was advertised in the local Express & Star for anyone to occupy. I have no doubt that the policy was introduced with good intentions, but I fear that it is being used as a loophole for a development that would not otherwise be allowed. In South Staffordshire there is ample provision because sites are sitting empty. The people who own those sites and plots are trying to sell them to people who are not from the Gypsy and Traveller communities, and I have had to involve my local authority to get proper enforcement action. Quite rightly, if those sites are provided for the Gypsy and Traveller communities, they should be used by those communities and not for personal gain or profit.

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman does not deny that there is a shortage of 4,000 pitches in the country. According to Government figures, at the end of 2007, only 50% of the 217 applications for sites to be developed under planning circular 01/2006 were granted planning permission. Does he claim that many of those sites then went on to become housing developments?

Gavin Williamson: No. I am talking about certain areas where a flawed regional spatial strategy was previously in place. In my constituency, and in the wider west midlands, the University of Salford was commissioned to carry out a survey. It involved someone going with a clipboard to all existing Gypsy and Traveller sites and asking, "Do you think you might require extra
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accommodation?" Oddly enough, the result was, "Yes, we do." Local authorities were then set targets that they had to meet.

The flaw in such a policy is that it did not look at changes in the population. It meant that if a constituency, district or borough council already had an existing Gypsy and Traveller population, there was an expectation for provision to increase dramatically. If there was no Gypsy or Traveller population already in an area, there was rarely an expectation for any provision to be made. Therefore, local authorities that had already made provision and looked after a Gypsy and Traveller population were penalised for that. I hope that the Minister will provide reassurances that those who make provision that, as has been said, is needed in certain areas of the country, are rewarded for doing so. However, it should not be mandatory or expected that those who have already done a lot should do ever more and more. In South Staffordshire-I speak only for South Staffordshire-such provision is there, but it is not being used; the sites are empty.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, and I reassure him that what he said about South Staffordshire also applies to Cheshire. Since I have become involved in this issue, I have noticed a lot of smoke and mirrors and red herrings. Behind the developments in my constituency-which sound very similar to those in South Staffordshire-are individual businessmen. This is a business opportunity for certain individuals to buy green belt land for cash and start developing a Gypsy and Traveller site. The moment they make it a Gypsy and Traveller site, things come into play and the issue becomes emotive. There is a lack of will by the local authorities.

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. I pointed out that interventions should be brief and to the point, not mini-speeches. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is about to draw his remarks to a conclusion.

Graham Evans: I am sorry, Mr Howarth; I am new to this game, but I appreciate what you say. I conclude by asking whether my hon. Friend agrees that much of this matter is about an opportunity for businessmen, rather than for individual Gypsies and Travellers.

Gavin Williamson: Very much so; that is precisely the case. Often, a distorting factor is created in the local agricultural market, and small pockets of land that could be purchased for about £4,000 to £6,000 per acre suddenly have an inflated value. One part of the population can increase the value of a development by turning it into a Gypsy and Traveller site. Unfortunately, in some areas that I have seen proposed for development, people seek to get planning permission to create a Gypsy and Traveller site and then, at a later stage, apply for a change of use or another potential form of development. That is a real concern. It will not happen over the next one or two years, but that is the route that people seem to be taking in the medium to long term.

What do I want to hear from the Minister? I could give him a long list of issues. There have been many positive words from the Department for Communities and Local Government about recognising localism. There have been warm words suggesting that the Department
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understands people's concerns, and positive responses to show that it understands the problem in the community. I have heard a lot, but I have seen little done.

I am sure that the Minister has, in his briefing papers, news of an awful lot that is about to be done. However, in late August, just before the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire, it was announced that planning circulars 01/2006 and 04/2007 were to be changed and new policies put in place. Unfortunately, everything seems to have gone quiet since then, although the announcement has encouraged a large number of people to make applications before there is a change in the planning circulars. In my constituency alone, there have been 13 applications, including in the villages of Hatherton and Coven Heath. Those people recognise that the loophole may be closed, but although there has been an announcement from the Department, I have not yet seen any action, and people are rushing to take the opportunity to get applications through the loophole.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): I apologise because I shall have to leave the Chamber to attend a Select Committee shortly. Does my hon. Friend agree that apart from the fact that many of the developments are on green belt, one of the problems that his constituents and mine have is that often there is development before any application for planning permission? That causes great upset. People want to see the rules being followed.

Gavin Williamson: Absolutely. I know the problems that my hon. Friend has had to deal with in the village of Penkridge, where extensive development has occurred. That is truly horrifying for the people who live there, because they see the development happening and local authorities have so few real powers to stop it. A similar situation arose in the village of Coven Heath, in my constituency, just a few months ago. Thankfully, when the bulldozers and everything else went in on the Saturday morning, the planning officers were there and were able to get the legal measures in place to get that stopped. However, there is a real problem, and there is a perceived view that if people apply retrospectively, they are treated more leniently. I hope that the Minister will pick up on that point and possibly explain how that will be changed.

Andrew George: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about ensuring that planning law is enforced and that there is not more leniency for those who have flouted the law, but of course Travellers do not simply evaporate away. If there are not sufficient pitches, the alternative for them is to live illegally. Does he agree with me that it would be far better to have local authority pitches, because the £18 million a year that is being spent on enforcement could be far better spent on ensuring that adequate pitches are available for travelling folk?

Gavin Williamson: The hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point. I would never argue against the idea of providing sufficient pitches for the Gypsy and Traveller community. What I am saying is that we need to get local authorities engaged in the idea of providing those pitches. This is about encouraging them to provide pitches, not having a law that discriminates against the settled community and favours the Gypsy and Traveller community. It is about achieving a balance.

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Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend also agree that this is not necessarily a zero-sum game? The increase in unauthorised sites is in parallel with an increase in authorised sites, so it is not necessarily the case that authorising one site means one fewer unauthorised sites.

Gavin Williamson: That is a very valid point. Let me give people an idea of what has been happening. In 1997, there were 887 unlawful encampments. There are now 2,395 unlawful encampments, and in that time the provision of private Gypsy and Traveller sites has increased. I do not have the figures for local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites, but my understanding is that both private and local authority provision has increased, and so have the unlawful encampments. That proves my hon. Friend's point.

I want the Minister to make it clear when the Department for Communities and Local Government will take action, start delivering on its promises to repeal planning circulars 01/2006 and 04/2007, and put something that is fairer, more just, and right in their place. I hope that the Minister will also do something about the planning applications that are currently going through the appeal process. I am thinking, for example, of the case of the site in Penkridge, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), which is with the Planning Inspectorate at the moment, and the sites at Wombourne and Calf Heath in my constituency.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said in the main Chamber just the other week:

I ask the Minister to help the communities that I represent, which feel that a gross injustice is being perpetrated against them. Will he write to the Planning Inspectorate, highlighting the Secretary of State's comments in the main Chamber and adding his voice to those comments, and will he ask it to ensure that the Secretary of State's views, and the fact that local authorities such as mine have a policy for dealing with Gypsy and Traveller sites, are properly taken into account, so that perhaps the Planning Inspectorate will consider those factors when making decisions on current appeals?

I accept that the Minister's very able and capable civil servants will often say that there are many reasons why he cannot move swiftly, but I urge him, on behalf of all those in South Staffordshire-and, I am sure, many people throughout the country-to have steel in his spine, make the changes happen, and deliver on the promises; we know that he wants to, and we know that that is required. I am quite sure that he will deliver and make many people in South Staffordshire much happier than they were under the previous, Labour Government.

9.57 am

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on securing the debate and on his very strong words on this subject. The debate is a great opportunity for me, because I have not been able to
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participate in previous debates on the subject, and during the past few months, it has transpired that there have been more and more developments of unauthorised sites across my constituency. I ask for the Minister's indulgence during my speech, because I will refer to a number of sites in my constituency. The debate presents an opportunity to discuss the important issues surrounding unauthorised developments and, significantly, the impact that they have on local communities.

As the Minister may be aware, and as ministerial colleagues in the Department know, in the Witham constituency, there are serious concerns about the robustness of planning processes and the proliferation of unauthorised sites and development by the travelling community. My constituency is a new one, and the issue is complicated by the fact that I have three local authorities, which act in quite different ways in their interpretation of policies for dealing with unauthorised developments.

For the purposes of today's debate, I shall refer to two sites. One is in Pattiswick. I have entered into quite a bit of correspondence on the issue with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). Pattiswick comes under Braintree district council. The other site is in the very rural location of Turkey Cock lane, which is in the borough of Colchester. Compared with Braintree, Colchester has a quite different approach to dealing with unauthorised development. However, both sites are causing particular concern and much distress to the local settled community.

As a result of today's debate, my constituents will look to the Minister for reassurance that the problems they face will be considered as the Government develop a new and fairer approach to Gypsy and Traveller planning. Indeed, my constituents would welcome the Government going further and demonstrating that Ministers will be on the side of the law-abiding majority, rather than on the side of those who choose to flout planning laws and restrictions. That comes back to comments made in the debate about this two-tier system-a parallel track, with one side for those who play by the rules and another for those who seek to flout them.

Communities feel absolutely powerless over the site in Colchester borough- Turkey Cock lane-and feel as if there is now nowhere to turn, because the local authority refuses to act against the presence of three additional vehicles, and the site is getting bigger and bigger. Vehicles have arrived on the site, with Travellers living in them, but despite the many concerns raised by the local community and me, the council has chosen to turn a blind eye. It has tried to justify what I would describe as its inertia by claiming that the new vehicles and people are coming on to the site to look after family members who are ill. That, however, has exacerbated the concerns of the local community.

To put in a local context, if a member of the settled local community were to build some form of temporary accommodation on their own land, you can bet your bottom dollar that the council would be there immediately to take enforcement action. Rightly, residents and my constituents are asking why the council has not acted in this case and why, importantly, why it has not engaged in dialogue with the local community and residents, who have genuine concerns and fears. Following endless
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inquiries on behalf of my constituents over the past few weeks, it is fair to say that I feel that we are now just part of an excuse culture from the local authority. It has made it clear that it is not prepared to take action until the new year. I have been informed that the council does not believe that it needs to act in the same manner as it would if a member of the settled community built an unauthorised extension on their land, which I find alarming.

Gavin Williamson: The situation that my hon. Friend outlines creates a great deal of animosity. It is not about creating one community, because the barriers immediately go up, and the perceived difference causes many problems for integration and for the communities coming together.

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it comes back to the whole issue of one system for the law-abiding majority and another for people undertaking unauthorised developments.

The local situation has been exacerbated even more, because two weeks ago, I was informed that the council would not be acting due to human rights considerations. As I am sure hon. Members will appreciate, my constituents feel that that is just yet another excuse. The Minister and Members familiar with human rights, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention will appreciate the comments that I am about to make: nowhere does the Act say that it can be used as a cover for local authorities to take no action whatsoever. My constituents believe that, without a doubt, there are two parallel systems-one for Travellers and one for those who play by the rules. There is deep alarm that the local authority-Colchester borough council-is not acting, and my constituents feel that they have no powers to compel it to act.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I, too, have problems with Travellers in my constituency. There are two issues: one is enforcement-we simply have to enforce existing legislation where appropriate. The other issue, about which my hon. Friend is making a strong point, is the need for clarity over what action is available for local authorities and other authorities that act in this respect. I urge the Minister to set out the stall over what can be done and how it should be enforced.

Priti Patel: I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks, because in my constituency there are three local authorities-I will touch on the other two-and everything seems quite subjective. Laws are being applied differently, so we seek clarity.

That brings us to the forthcoming localism Bill, which will hand more powers to local communities. I hope that the Minister will consider empowering residents to force local councils and authorities, such as Colchester borough council, to act to ensure consistent enforcement of rules and regulations, because we need consistency across the country. While some local authorities have not taken sufficient action, for whatever reason, in my constituency we have the example of a local authority trying to act on behalf of residents but being hugely frustrated by protracted planning and legal considerations -something which my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire touched upon.

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In Pattiswick in the district of Braintree, Travellers have been illegally developing a site since September in a location regarded as a special landscape area. Residents are deeply concerned about that development, and are being frustrated in their efforts to have illegal developments removed. A planning application has not been submitted thus far and, despite action by Braintree district council through the courts, the Travellers have used every tactic available under the law to play for time while they act in contravention of the enforcement action taken by the council. On 15 October at the High Court, the council was successful in obtaining an injunction preventing further development at the site, but the existing developments were allowed to remain pending the outcome of any appeal. That, of course, has caused a great deal of stress in the local community. That said, one of the Travellers was successfully prosecuted earlier last month for breaching a temporary stop notice.

Despite the clear breaches and the fact that the council has taken legal action, the Travellers have until 1 January 2011 before the enforcement notice takes full effect, and further appeals will absolutely come. That lengthy process is deeply unsettling to local residents. They are genuinely concerned, because local council taxpayers are footing the bill for the legal action, and Pattiswick residents are concerned to hear from the local authority that the cost implications of the case thus far may restrict the council from taking any further action.

I ask the Minister, how can this be right? It is not just a concern for the present but is an ongoing concern. I urge him to ensure that the right legislation is in place to guarantee that local communities and local councils can act quickly, efficiently and decisively to remove illegal encampments and block unauthorised developments, such as those in my constituency. I have been in correspondence about those two sites, and, although I would not say that the issue was spiralling out of control, it demonstrates the inconsistency in how local authorities deal with such matters, as we have heard.

The third local authority in my constituency is Maldon district council. Along with my constituents in Tolleshunt Knights, it opposed a planning application for a development for travelling show people, which Ministers will know about. The case went to the Planning Inspectorate, which took time to confirm that it would consider the revocation of the regional special strategies that cause a huge amount of alarm within local communities, and, I think, caused alarm in the Department when I raised the issue with Ministers. Frankly, there is far too much uncertainty. People were already concerned that planning circular 04/2007, which we have discussed, would remain in force and would compromise local opposition.

We know the intention of planning circulars 04/2007 and 01/2006, but I come back to the fact that they cause great uncertainty. I urge the Minister to reconfirm that they will be scrapped, and I hope that a timetable will be put in place sooner rather than later to allow that to happen; otherwise, there be many other such cases, not only in the constituencies of colleagues here today, but across the country.

With the localism Bill just around the corner, the fundamental message is that we absolutely must empower our local communities and councils to take effective action promptly. We must also remove any bias or discrimination in the system that works against local
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settled communities. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, I urge the Minister to be incredibly robust. We have lost a lot of time, and action must be taken. There is great unease in my constituency, given the cases that I have highlighted. I would welcome significant assurances from the Minister that the law will be on the side of my constituents and that our local councils will be empowered to do the right thing.

10.11 am

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on securing this important debate. It is very timely, given that we are in the run-up to the introduction of the localism Bill, to which we all very much look forward. My hon. Friend and other hon. Members present fully acknowledge the importance of having a measured and reasoned debate on a subject on which feelings, locally and elsewhere, can run high, and that is exactly what we have had.

The debate's title is "Gypsy and Traveller Sites", but in many ways we are not talking about Gypsies and Travellers. The issues of trespass, unauthorised development and so on are often conflated with the issue of Gypsies and Travellers. It is absolutely fair to say that my constituents and hon. Members present are talking not really about the fact of Gypsies and Travellers, but about actions and activities that get in the way of others.

We all acknowledge the challenges that members of the Gypsy and Traveller communities face, and I say "communities" in the plural, because Gypsies are different from Travellers, and both are different again from travelling show people, as hon. Members have mentioned. These groups face particular challenges in terms of educational attainment, health outcomes and so on, and much good work is done in local authorities and elsewhere to try to improve those outcomes. In all these debates, we must also remember that children are involved, and no child chooses the lifestyle into which they are born. It must be fundamental to our activities that we secure the best educational and health outcomes for such children.

I am a libertarian, as I suppose most of those present are to a greater or lesser degree, and it is not for us to dictate the lifestyle that anybody should adopt. However, it is also the fundamental principle of libertarianism that we should let people do, and encourage them to do, absolutely what they want as long as it does not harm others. It is the second part of that principle that we are more concerned about today. We have built up a massive system of laws to enshrine the basic principle of allowing people to do what they want as long as it does not harm others. It is absolutely fundamental that all people and groups abide by the same set of laws, because that is good for community cohesion. One of the great things that unites us is our system of laws, which underpins our society.

Notwithstanding my intervention on my hon. Friend, we must ensure that there is adequate provision of good, authorised sites. I therefore welcome the Government's proposed incentives under the new homes bonus to encourage the provision of such sites. However, more needs to be done, and we look to the Minister to ensure that the localism Bill includes the measures that people want to create a level playing field.

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In particular, there is the issue of retrospective planning applications, which, although not the only issue in my constituency, have been a fundamental issue. We all recognise that there must, for all sorts of reasons, be a place for retrospective planning applications. However, it cannot be beyond the wit of man, let alone politicians and civil servants, to come up with a set of principles and rules that allow genuine mistakes to be rectified while not preventing wilful abuse of the system. I look to the Minister to ensure that such provisions are included in the Bill. To conclude, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire once again on securing the debate and on the measured way in which it has been conducted.

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): The two Front-Bench speakers will take up 15 minutes apiece, so there is scope for other speeches to be made. However, those who wish to speak should signify in some way that they want to do so.

10.16 am

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): Thank you, Mr Howarth. I am new to this, so I am not quite clear about the procedure in this debating Chamber.

I want to make a brief contribution about my constituency in mid-Cheshire, which faces a lot of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) outlined so well. The fundamental issue for our constituents is fairness. Is it fair that most ordinary citizens have to go through the planning process, while others do not? I recently had to apply for a change of use of premises for a new constituency office, and it was really quite amusing to see what hoops I had to jump through just to get a change of use from a taxi office to an ordinary office.

In the six months that I have been a Member of Parliament, I have learned how people can buy a strip of green belt land and transform it. If I wanted to become a landlord, it would be quite simple. I would buy a strip of green belt land and say that I wanted to build stables, for example. I would start to build a stable block, but with no intention of putting horses in it; in fact, I would put in toilets and showers. That would be done without planning permission. I would then install utilities, including water, waste water utilities, and a septic tank. Again, I would do that without planning permission. I would then leave it a few months before inviting people to pitch up and put their caravans on my land. Again, there would be no planning permission.

That is all done in the face of the local community. When the community notifies the local authorities, the authorities seem unwilling, although I believe they are able, to take those responsible to task. In my earlier, lengthy intervention, the point I was getting at was that we are talking about business men who see an opportunity to become landlords. They can have several pitches and they can charge rent for them. These are not Gypsy and Traveller sites in the sense that members of the travelling community come, spend some at the site and move on; these are semi-permanent pitches. A coach and horses can be driven through green belt legislation by turning a stable block into a toilet block and putting utilities on the land. That can be done over a weekend.

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When I was campaigning before the general election, a lot of residents contacted me on the Thursday evening before the Easter bank holiday to say that people were planning to move on to a site with concrete mixers and tarmac to put in hard-standing alongside the utilities-the utilities were already there, but the site was going to be turned into a permanent fixture. We notified the local authorities on the Thursday that that was going to happen. The people went on to the site on the bank holiday Friday, but no local government officers were there, despite the notification. Over the Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, those involved were able to secure the pitches and make them semi-permanent.

Most ordinary people are not legal beagles, and they do not know the complexity of the legal system, but lay people like me know when something that is about to happen is wrong. Local authorities and their legal departments seem unwilling to enforce the existing law. Daresbury is a classic example from my constituency of what happens with Gypsy and Traveller sites. The people concerned see an opportunity to have a brand new Traveller site, although I use the term loosely, because the sites are semi-permanent, with all the utilities. An extensive legal process is now under way; it is taking months, which will soon turn to years. The business men in question seem able to recruit and pay the best legal advisers and barristers, who in court run rings round the local authority legal departments. I am aghast at the lack of will or ability on the part of local authority planning departments.

Gavin Williamson: Does my hon. Friend think that part of the reason for that is that there is such financial gain to be had from securing those planning permissions that an awful lot of money can be ploughed into securing them in the first place? That is why the applicants can afford such expensive legal teams.

Graham Evans: My hon. Friend makes an important point, with which I agree. We are talking about business men capitalising on a business opportunity; the matter has very little to do with the travelling community. Although those business men may be connected to the travelling community, they live in fixed abodes. The hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who is no longer in his place, alluded to the travelling community, but I do not believe that this matter is totally about that community. It is about a business opportunity that is very well executed. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said, it is so profitable that it is worth employing the best barristers to run rings round the local authority representatives.

In my constituency there are two such sites. Towers lane is an area of outstanding beauty. Ancient hedgerows were dug up on a bank holiday and the whole area has been tarmacked. There are utilities, so the people there are paying for gas and electricity, and water rates. Those sites are therefore now semi-permanent, and are legal in the sense that the bills are being paid. I presume rent is being paid to the landlord. Yet there is no planning permission, in green belt, in some of Cheshire's most outstanding areas of beauty. It is a fantastic business model for those who can get away with it-and the people in question are getting away with it. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments, because the scam must come to an end. It is not about human rights; it is about fairness and ensuring that the constituents of many hon. Members have their voices heard.

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10.23 am

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): It is a pleasure, indeed, to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), who describes very succinctly a problem that many hon. Members present for the debate have experienced in our constituencies. It is particularly associated with bank holiday Mondays, lengthy legal disputes, and people who describe themselves as Travellers becoming, to all intents and purposes, members of the settled community.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on securing this important debate. I think it is the third or fourth on this subject in which I have taken part in this Chamber. I hope that what the Minister will tell us, and what will happen in the next few months, will mean that we shall not have to have constant repeats of this debate here, because the Government will take urgent steps to put right what we have been discussing. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire for missing the early part of his remarks. I shall read them with care tomorrow in the Official Report.

It seems to me that we are seeking three or four things from the Government. First, when the original local authority Traveller legislation was passed-in 1966, if my memory serves me right-there were something of the order of 2,000 Gypsy caravans illegally parked in England, because there were no local authority sites. In 1997, at the time of the repeal, there were still 4,500 illegally parked Gypsy caravans in England, despite the fact that local authorities had in the meantime built 7,000 pitches. Today there are-I think, from memory-17,500 Gypsy caravans altogether around England. That is an exponential growth in so-called Gypsy caravans. It appears that no matter how many sites one provides for them, more Gypsy caravans appear to fill them. It is a sort of Parkinson's law. The more sites are built, the more Gypsy caravans there are.

The Government should start by defining precisely who the people in question are, and what duty society has to provide for them. My understanding is that under the law the words "Gypsy" and "Traveller" include everything, starting with bona fide Romanies, of whom we have many in Wiltshire, whom we welcome very much and who can be seen beside the road carving trinkets-good luck to them. They are great people, proper travellers, decent people-and law-abiding, by and large. The words in question also include the Irish. Some of the Irish travellers in my constituency are pretty rough, to say the least, although many are not. I take issue with the inclusion of travelling showmen. Travelling showmen are an entirely different group-mainly settled. They are mainly very decent people. There are some very nice ones in my constituency. They tend to be in a place for a very short time and then go back to their base, taking their show kit with them. Of course, hippies, junkies and all sorts of layabouts come into the category of Travellers and Gypsies, and they have the same rights, apparently, to set up their caravans in the middle of our countryside wherever they wish, under an antiquated law.

Secondly, we hope that the localism Bill, whose presentation in the House we all look forward to, will deal with local people. If someone comes into my constituency surgery saying that they come from Inverness and they want a council house, I will say to them,
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perfectly legitimately, "I'm extremely sorry; you must get back to Inverness. The people of Wiltshire have no responsibility to provide a council house for you. You must prove a local connection"; whereas, if a Gypsy comes to my constituency surgery and says, "I'm a Gypsy and I want to set my caravan down in your constituency", under the current Act and under planning circulars 01/06 and 04/07, I have some legal responsibility to allow that. That seems to me to be quite wrong.

Even worse is the situation of a lady who came to my constituency surgery and said, "I have a caravan in the middle of my organic farm; it's about 20 acres. The local authority has decided that the organic farm is no longer making money and therefore requires me to leave." Quite why the profitability of the organic farm and her ability to live in the caravan are linked, I do not know; but apparently they are. My constituent was thrown out of her caravan. It did not have to be moved. It was in the middle of nowhere. She was allowed to put chickens in the caravan, but she was not allowed to live there. I said to her, "What I think you should try is to get in touch with the local authority and say that you are extremely sorry, but you made a mistake, because you did not declare yourself to be a Romany Gypsy. If you declare yourself a Romany Gypsy, presumably planning circular 01/06 or 04/07 will apply to you. Take it to court. Try to work out whether you could be a Gypsy. I bet you anything that the courts will not be able to sort that one out for you."

We need localism. It is reasonable that the people of Wiltshire should welcome Wiltshire Gypsies and make proper provision for them. We should make sure that there are quite enough sites in Wiltshire. I think that there are; the county is very well provided with sites. However, what of Gypsies from elsewhere in England, or indeed elsewhere on the continent? As Romania becomes part of the European Union, we may well see more Roma Gypsies moving to this country, as happened in France. We must say to the Irish, "You must stay in Ireland." We must say to Gypsies and Travellers from across the continent, "Wherever you came from, stay there." We in Wiltshire-it will be the same for other hon. Members' areas-have a moral duty to make proper provision only for our local Gypsies, and not for anyone else.

The third thing that I hope the Government will attend to is the question of the regional spatial strategy. It was an absurd document. It included the carrying out, somehow or other-we do not know how it was done-of a ridiculous survey of the number of Gypsies and Travellers in England. They were divided up between the number of areas-eight or nine, I think, covering the whole of England-and the bizarre conclusion was reached that the south-west of England should have x thousand Gypsy sites. That was divided by the number of counties, to give x hundred for Wiltshire, and that was divided by the number of district councils. That came, in my case, to about 50 or 60 Gypsy sites needed in North Wiltshire. There is no logic in that at all, particularly given that the people in question are Travellers.

The RSS has gone, but it is not clear whether the courts will pay any attention to it. I know that there was recently a very awkward court case in which it was discovered that the abolition of the RSS did not have any effect on house building. We very much hope that the Minister will make it plain this morning that the
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abolition of the RSS and the Secretary of State's determination in relation to it are a material consideration in planning appeals about Gypsy sites. Alternatively, if that is not so, the Government should take urgent action to repeal the RSS, bring in the localism Bill, and repeal circulars 01/06 and 04/07. Without that, there will be, as some of my hon. Friends have said this morning, a mad rush of Gypsy encampments to get through the gap before this action is taken by the Government. Some urgent action is required by the Government; it is not just a question of being sympathetic. We need to hear from the Minister that the Government intend to take urgent action to stop what is, without question, a loophole in planning law, to require local authorities to make provision for their local Gypsies, but to allow local authorities and local people to say to Gypsies from elsewhere around England or Europe, "You may now return to wherever it was you came from."

10.30 am

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) has instigated an important debate on the problems and issues that need to be addressed by Government policy in relation to Gypsy and Traveller sites and behaviour, and how all that fits with the planning process. It has been a thoughtful debate and hon. Members have avoided getting emotive on a subject that often tends to move in that direction.

I can remember as a child that my father, who was then a senior councillor on Havering council, sought to resolve the deep unhappiness that unregulated and illegal Traveller sites caused in that area. He took the view that it was important to find sites that could be properly managed and where the Gypsy and Traveller families were better able to access education for their children, health care and advice on what were and were not acceptable actions when living in the locality. That was an enlightened view at the time, but we are now some 40 years down the line, and successive Governments have failed to provide a solution that works for the settled communities, who face unacceptable levels of illegal and unauthorised sites. It also fails to deal with the needs of travelling communities and Gypsies.

We are still seeing the enormous cost that can be caused to local authorities and other organisations, and we are also still seeing the abuse that some Gypsy and Traveller families face, when they may well in fact simply be trying to remain within the law, because-let us be absolutely clear-the appalling behaviour that we have heard described today is not that of the vast majority of the travelling community.

This debate, though, is about Government policy and how it would deal with the elements that have been highlighted in the debate. How will the Department determine the level of provision needed? The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) spoke with some experience on this subject, but he, too, was unclear about the level of need. It is understood that the Department for Communities and Local Government would look at the Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments, and consider how local authorities would decide to review the level of provision that those assessments indicated
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was necessary. What is the time scale for that, and what action will the Government take if local authorities, having identified need, do not make adequate, or indeed any, provision to meet the need for suitable accommodation?

Mr Gray: The point I was making is that it is not possible to assess the need because of the European Union. There are Gypsies and Travellers from across the continent who could theoretically land up in any of our constituencies. It is not possible to assess that need and, therefore, what we should be saying is not, "Let us assess the need". Let us say, "Only local Travellers, only Travellers who have demonstrable Wiltshire connections may stay in my constituency. The rest must push off somewhere else."

Alison Seabeck: That is a very interesting view. It is a nimby view and, given that the nature of travelling populations is that they move around the country as part of their culture, it would be quite difficult to enforce.

How will localism deal with a complex problem, which, as has just been clearly flagged up, is mobile, does not just affect one community and can be very transitory? Hon. Members asked for clarity and coherence of policy across local authorities. Quite how that works alongside localism is an interesting subject, and one we will no doubt debate further when the Bill comes forward.

How will the Government identify those travellers who are described in the DCLG announcement made on 6 July by the Secretary of State as playing by the rules, and what are those rules? What guidance will be given to Gypsy and Traveller communities on that? What discussions has the Minister had with the Gypsy Council about the potential impact of abolishing the regional spatial strategies and of circular 01/06? Although that circular was slow to take off under the last Government, the general view, although not shared by hon. Members here today, is that it was beginning to work. I have no doubt that the Gypsy Council will have lobbied the Government on that.

Given that the statement on the RSS is still subject to court proceedings, what is the exact status of the planning policy specific to Travellers? In particular, given the concerns that he raised, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire should be aware that the courts have found against the Secretary of State on the issue of material consideration. That is somewhat in limbo at the moment.

I was interested to read that the Government intend to apply the new homes bonus scheme to authorised Traveller sites. That is interesting because, as it stands on the information that we have, the scheme already favours the building of homes on greenfield sites, because that is where there is the quickest return.

Gavin Williamson: I accept the point about greenfield sites, but there is a vast difference between greenfield and green belt. The issue that often exercises most people is that the site is on green belt land, on which no one else would get permission to develop.

Alison Seabeck: I will come back to the green belt issue later. In parts of the country-certainly in and around Plymouth-we are looking at greenfield development. There are concerns within settled communities that the speed with which developments may be able to
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take place and the incentive brought back in on greenfield sites could encourage local authorities to develop sites more quickly, perhaps in areas that others might think unsuitable.

Will any site that is taken out of use be considered in the same way as demolitions in the housing stock will be netted off against the bonus paid, as part of the new homes bonus? If the pitches are unoccupied for large parts of the year-let us understand that Traveller and Gypsy families do move around and will winter in one place and summer somewhere else-I am not entirely clear how the homes will be viewed. Will they be vacant or occupied? Will the empty homes proposal kick in for any reason, if the pitch is not used for six months? How will that work? Will there be exemptions?

Gavin Williamson: The hon. Lady touched on a point when she said that she felt that the planning regulations were working, and she talks about empty, vacant pitches. Does she not agree that it is a disgrace that such pitches are getting planning permission and then people attempt to sell them on the general market? Is that not an abuse of the planning regulations?

Alison Seabeck: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, and I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say in response, as it is clearly a problem the hon. Gentleman has experienced in his area; it is not one I have come across. If there is an abuse there, along with the other abuses in the system, Governments of whatever colour need to look at how we block them off.

I come back to the point about whether there will be exceptions. Given the general unpopularity of such developments, if the new neighbourhood planning arrangements are introduced and the Government and local authorities expect such sites to go ahead even with the incentive, there could be considerable local unhappiness. Therefore, I am not clear how, ultimately, need will be met. We have heard from the hon. Gentleman that there seems to be over-provision in his area. We know that in other parts of the country there is a real shortage, and then we end up with illegal sites. Are we simply going to be chasing illegal site users around the country, with all the cost and damage that sometimes follow them?

I also worry about the site identification process, because I suspect most MPs will have evidence of sites being put forward as suitable for Gypsy and Traveller families, which are far from that. Indeed, when the issue was debated in July 2009, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), described a site where the sewage drained straight into a ditch, and said that a condition for planning on that site was that it should not be occupied by any group other than Gypsy and Traveller households. Why is it acceptable for those families to live in such conditions but no one else? It hardly helps to build mutual respect in a community and encourage behavioural change if people are treated with such a lack of respect.

Gypsy and Traveller families already face shorter life expectancy and higher infant mortality and have fewer children in education than any other group. That was a point touched on by the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) in his intervention.

We have to find ways to reduce the £18 million bill linked to Gypsy and Traveller communities that local authorities face annually, a subject that was highlighted
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by the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who is no longer in his place. We also have to find ways in which those groups can be seen as part of the local community; they should be active participants and not seen as being wholly negative. A good starting point would be to use some of that local authority funding, which is linked largely to tackling the negative side of the issue, to set up better managed sites. There are positive things in some of the Government's measures, and I would welcome improved tenancy rights for those who remain on authorised sites, if they are brought forward.

We have heard about the tensions that exist between the settled and travelling communities. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire expressed concern about the use of green belt land. I wonder whether his local authority has given any thought to the possibility of having sites closer to the centres of towns in his patch, as they may be more suitable. We tend to think of Gypsies and Travellers living in fields in the outskirts. London, however, has a number of inner city sites; they are well managed by the local authorities and they work quite well. It is all too easy to put these people at the back of beyond, and we ought to give sites nearer the centre a little more consideration.

Graham Evans: The hon. Lady mentions the back of beyond. That may be her view, but in my constituency in the county of Cheshire the back of beyond is beautiful and outstanding countryside. I am as concerned as she is about individual Traveller communities, but I was alluding to those that make business opportunities out of the local authorities' lack of will.

Alison Seabeck: I stand corrected, and apologise for my slightly sloppy use of language. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I meant the outskirts of towns, not the centre. I was not casting aspersions on the beauty of the countryside around his constituency-nor, indeed, around mine, as Dartmoor is on the northern edge. If I may, I shall return to the question of businessmen shortly.

The hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who is no longer in her place, highlighted the need to support the law-abiding. I assume that she means in both the settled and the travelling communities, and I entirely agree with that sentiment. The hon. Member for East Hampshire made a strong case for the freedom to live one's life as one chooses, but he made it clear that with that freedom must come responsibility. Again, I doubt if anyone here would disagree. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Evans) said how important it was for policies to be seen to be fair across communities. He spoke of businessmen who, almost by stealth, can change green belt sites into sites for Travellers, which was an extremely pertinent comment. We certainly need to consider that outrageous scam, as some people are making a lot of money from it. The hon. Gentleman was quite right to bring that to the attention of the House.

Where unauthorised sites exist, we should come down on them like a ton of bricks. Being able to move quickly is often the key. Sadly, however, we have heard that many local authorities are slow to respond when local residents draw their attention to the fact that Travellers might have moved in. They need to act as early as possible, and have the power to move them on to
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authorised sites or to sites out of the area, while ensuring that there are no specific welfare issues. The powers exist, but as the hon. Member for Witham flagged up, her constituency contains a number of local authority areas, and some of them use the powers well and some do not. In this localist world, it behoves local authorities to act, but they should understand that they have a responsibility to a much wider community.

Having a spread of authorities would clearly help, but I am not wholly convinced that the Government's proposals address the question when taken in the round. The Government should avoid contradictory aims, and I am therefore most interested to hear what the Minister has to tell us.

10.44 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): It is a pleasure, Mr Howarth, to serve under your chairmanship, and to take part in what is turning into a quarterly debate on Gypsies. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) was one of several Members who alluded to the previous debate in September, to which I responded.

I wish to make it clear from the outset that the Government are committed to sustainable development in every community. It is important that local authorities should plan for the future of their communities, both in economic and environmental sustainability, as well as social sustainability-something that was at the forefront of today's debate. The tension, anger and frustration about the relationship between unauthorised developments and encampments and the communities afflicted by them came through strongly in this debate.

The Government have made it clear from the outset, as has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that they want to see fair play, with everyone being treated equally and even-handedly. We are encouraging local authorities to provide appropriate sites for Travellers. That should be done in consultation with local communities to meet local need and historic demand. As several Members pointed out, we will provide incentives for them to do so. We believe that it is important to take action against unauthorised Traveller encampments and developments, and to take note of the effect that they have on local communities.

I return to a point that many speakers readily acknowledged in this thoughtful debate: the huge majority of members of the Traveller community live peaceably on authorised sites, and have good relations with the settled community about them. It is at the fringe-the minority-where we experience the difficulties that were brought to our attention. The minority give a bad name to the Traveller community, and it has a negative effect on community cohesion. We also need to tackle discrimination to Travellers, and the poor social outcomes that they face.

Much has been said about the two-tier planning system, and it is right that such a system should be broken down. I shall say more on what the Department and the Government are doing, and will do, to deal with that. However, we must recognise the other side of the coin-a two-tier delivery of services, on one hand to the
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settled community, and on the other, to the Gypsy and Traveller community. We have to tackle that problem as well. Indeed, one might reflect that unless we do so, in the longer term it will ultimately prove impossible to deal satisfactorily with the side of the coin that we have been discussing this morning.

Mr Gray: I am not sure that I entirely agree with the Minister. My experience in Wiltshire is that the services provided to the travelling community are outstanding, as they are to the settled community. The schools, the health service and the other services provided by the state are provided as brilliantly to them as to everyone else. It is up to them to decide whether to make use of the schools and how long they should keep the children there, or whether to make use of the national health service. I am not certain that we should blame ourselves for making inadequate provision; rather, it is a question of whether or not they make use of it.

Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman's experience in Wiltshire sounds admirable. It is a pity that it is not reflected across the country. The life expectancy of Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers is 10 years shorter than the national average; Gypsy and Traveller mothers are 20 times more likely to experience the death of a child than the rest of the population; and the school attendance and educational attainment of Gypsy and Traveller pupils is much lower than their peers at every key stage. As a responsible society, we cannot simply wash our hands of that problem and say that it is no concern of ours. More relevant to this debate, however, is the clear disconnection between Gypsy and Traveller communities and the settled communities through which they pass and in which they reside. It is not made any better by the outcomes that result from such a disjunction.

Turning to what the Government have done so far on the matters raised in this debate, the Secretary of State has made it clear that we will abolish regional strategies, and the text for that will appear in the localism Bill, which will be published before Christmas and make its way through the Houses of Parliament over the next few months. Under the Bill, decision-making on housing and on Traveller sites will be returned to local communities, thereby giving them a new role in building up local plans, and the opportunities for retrospective planning applications will be limited. Local authorities will get stronger enforcement powers to tackle unauthorised sites.

I hope that hon. Members who have contributed to this debate will study the provisions in the Bill to satisfy themselves that what I have said is correct. I am sure that they will let me know if there are any gaps that still need to be plugged once the legislation is in place. As I previewed in September, a cross-Government, ministerial level working group has been set up to address the discrimination and poor social outcomes experienced by Traveller communities. The Secretary of State has written to local authorities to remind them to be alert and ready to take action against sites that set up over bank holiday periods, which the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) mentioned. We have not only announced our intention to revoke the circulars but set about doing so. Such action can only be taken after consultation, otherwise it would not be a lawful revocation, and that process will start early in the new year.

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Gavin Williamson: I welcome my hon. Friend's announcement. Although I appreciate that he must go through a process to make the changes, I urge him to do so with speed. He must ensure that his Department does the job thoroughly, but he must bear it in mind that time is a consideration and that these changes must be made very quickly.

Andrew Stunell: I entirely agree that we need to do the job thoroughly and quickly. To do it thoroughly, we are required, by statute, to have a 12-week consultation period, so that is as fast as we can go. None the less, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State and the ministerial team are thoroughly apprised of the problem and are working hard to ensure that we reach a solution.

We must be careful about the terminology we use, because each one has different legal implications and outcomes. Unauthorised developments, to which the hon. Member for Weaver Vale referred, are sites on land owned by the Gypsy and Traveller community, and unauthorised encampments are trespasses on other people's land. When we talk about how we tackle each of those, we must be clear that we need a different prescription and legal process to deal with them. Existing police powers can deal with unauthorised encampments if an alternative site is available in the local authority area. It is that conditionality that means that action against unlawful encampments is often not as prompt as hon. Members and communities would like. To deal with the problem, we must have a larger number of authorised sites so that when trespass takes place it is feasible for rapid action to be taken under the existing law.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Does the Minister not agree that it makes better sense for there to be powers to remove people without any conditions about forming encampments elsewhere? Would it not be better to have two stages that are not related?

Andrew Stunell: This is an issue that has been through the courts on a number of occasions. One must recognise that everyone in society has rights, and they include the right to life. Although I take stock of what my hon. Friend says, I do not think that that is the way to proceed. We must ensure that there are lawful and appropriate places in which all the residents of the United Kingdom can live. If we have that and they choose then to trespass elsewhere, they should be dealt with quickly and promptly.

Mr Gray: The Minister, I think, is not correct. Surely if someone is trespassing, they should be removed from that site whether or not there is proper provision elsewhere in the local authority area. He is mixing up two things. He refers, I think, to circular 01/06, which specifies that someone may be removed from an unauthorised site that they own unless there is proper provision elsewhere; and that of course is what should be repealed. I suspect that the Minister has muddled the two areas.

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Andrew Stunell: I certainly welcome further advice from the hon. Gentleman, who has taken a real interest in the development of policy in this area. The Government recognise the need to provide appropriate places in which all residents of the United Kingdom can live, and that certainly includes the Gypsy and Traveller community.

Damian Hinds rose-

Andrew Stunell: Let me move on to the new homes bonus, because that is the incentive for local communities to contribute to solving the problem. The bonus is being consulted on at the moment, with a closure date of 24 December-so there is a little bit of pre-Christmas reading for those who have taken part in this debate. A response to the Department would be very welcome.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), who speaks on behalf of the Opposition, posed a number of questions. I suggest that she take stock of the questions and the outline of the scheme in the consultation document and then let us know how she wishes to proceed. The new homes bonus will be helpful. In the coming financial year, we will resume grants to local authorities for the appropriate development of Gypsy sites.

Gavin Williamson: I appreciate that time is very short, and that the Minister is probably coming to my last request, but may I urge I him to write to the Planning Inspectorate, highlighting the words that were said in the Chamber by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State? Will he state that they should be taken into account when considering the planning applications that are under appeal?

Andrew Stunell: The Secretary of State has made it clear to the Planning Inspectorate, planning officers and the House that the decisions that the Government have announced they intend to take are material considerations that should be taken into account. We have done that in relation to the regional spatial strategies as a whole, and I will talk to my ministerial colleagues about whether it would be appropriate for the Secretary of State to write in the terms that my hon. Friend has set out.

We are in a situation that has defied policy solutions for year after year, and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View was good enough to acknowledge that. Whether we have strong central policy or a locally based policy, the answer has to be the same; we need to have more suitable legal accommodation for the Gypsy and Traveller communities. [Hon. Members: "No"] I hear hon. Members disagreeing with that, but if we are talking about Wiltshire homes for Wiltshire people-whether they are Gypsies and Travellers or members of the settled community-that is a planning policy that has some very confining outcomes for Wiltshire. It is the case that we live in a fluid and mobile society, generation to generation, and we must recognise that in our planning system and in our policies for Gypsies and Travellers and for developing social cohesion. The anger and concern of today is real and must be addressed, but it must be done in a measured and responsible way, which is exactly what this Government plan to do.

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Detention of Palestinian Children (West Bank)

11 am

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I very much welcome the opportunity to have this debate today, especially as it is taking place just two weeks after members of the all-party group on Palestine visited the west bank, under the auspices of the Council for Arab-British Understanding. I would like to put on record my thanks for CAABU's support during our trip, and for the work that it does in promoting better understanding between the middle east and Britain.

During our visit, we had meetings with various politicians and officials, including the Palestinian Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and others. However, our main concern was to see for ourselves the conditions faced by Palestinians in the west bank. In meeting that aim, we were assisted by various non-governmental organisations, which also deserve our gratitude. We toured the area of E1 and visited Silwan, where homes are under severe threat of demolition and where a large area has been redesignated as a protected area. We also toured the northern west bank, including Nablus and the Balata refugee camp.

We saw one household that has effectively been excluded from its community because it is sandwiched between the so-called security wall and a settlement. The owner of the house has been given a key to a small metal gate in the fence, but he still cannot easily access his land, which used to take him only a few minutes to reach. We met another family on the edge of a small village whose home had been attacked more than 90 times by nearby settlers, leading to one death and the destruction of their herd of goats, and therefore of their livelihood. We visited a Bedouin herding community who are constantly being harassed, including by having their shacks destroyed, and who have tremendous difficulty accessing basic services such as health and education. They do not have access to water because they are so hemmed in, and consequently they need to buy it, although they cannot easily afford it.

I could go on. However, it was a visit to a military court, where we saw the court process involving Palestinian children, that shocked us to the core, so we decided to highlight the issue on our return. That is why I applied for this debate, and why I shall concentrate mainly on that issue during it. However, I am not losing sight of the fact that it is not only a serious issue in its own right but illustrative of some of the wider issues in play in the occupied territories involving settlements, prolonged military occupation and de facto annexation of land. The military court system plays a component part in those wider issues, and I am sure that colleagues will wish to refer to some of those other issues if they manage to catch your eye, Mr Howarth.

According to article 37(b) of the UN convention on the rights of the child,

Since 2000, around 6,500 Palestinian children have been detained in Israeli jails. In total, 32% of confessions made by children are taken in Hebrew, a language that is not spoken by most Palestinians.

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Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): Could the hon. Lady just clarify where that information comes from-that specific claim that 32% of confessions are made in Hebrew?

Sandra Osborne: Certainly. As I said, a number of NGOs took us around, and they have done research on the issue. However, most of the information comes from Defence for Children International, which has taken the testimonies of many children. I refer the hon. Gentleman to its report, if he wants to see more information.

Israel operates a dual legal system for Israelis and Palestinians, with different ages of responsibility and different levels of protection for Israeli and Palestinian children. In 2009, two thirds of Palestinian children detained reported being physically abused during their time in custody. Allegations of torture remain widespread. The Palestinian section of Defence for Children International reports that more than 700 children a year are prosecuted in Israel's two west bank military courts. Since 2000, around 6,500 Palestinian children have been detained in Israeli jails. As of 1 November 2010, 251 Palestinian children were being detained in three Israeli prisons. Two of those children are currently being held by Israel without trial or charge, under administrative detention orders.

The Addameer Prisoners' Support and Human Rights Association reports that most Palestinian children are detained on the charge of throwing stones; 62% of those arrested in 2009 were detained on that charge. Children are taken away from their home, generally at night, and they are blindfolded, often humiliated, and regularly abused. While we were at the military court, we spoke to a family who had been woken during the night and told to stand outside their home because their son had been identified as a boy who was going to be arrested. He was taken off, and the parents had no idea where he was going to. Children are taken to unknown military detention centres that are generally outside the occupied territories. The family is rarely informed of the location of their child, and may only find out that information via contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross or legal NGOs.

Once in detention, a child is rarely told why they have been arrested, and they are held for up to eight days without access to their family or a lawyer. Interviews take the form of military-style interrogations, and are conducted without video recording, despite demands to end that practice. Forms of abuse that are frequently reported include sleep deprivation, beatings, slapping and kicking, denial of food and water, prolonged periods in uncomfortable conditions, exposure to extreme heat or cold, and denial of access to toilets and washing facilities. In total, 81% of Palestinian children confess during interrogation. The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel reports that abuse is widespread:

At the end of our all-party group's four-day tour of the occupied west bank, we arrived at the military court of Ofer. We were there to witness just how the Israeli military courts treated Palestinian children. The courtroom procedures were witnessed by our delegation in a tense
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and distressing atmosphere. There was a jangle of chains outside the door of the courtroom. All the visitors froze. Army officers led child detainees into the military courtroom. The children's legs were shackled, they were handcuffed and they were all kitted out in brown jumpsuits. One had to wonder if the soldiers felt threatened by 13 and 14-year-old boys.

We waited in the basic concrete courtrooms, looking at the uniformed judge and prosecutors. Two parallel processes happened. The judge, the prosecuting team and the defence lawyer discussed the case in Hebrew, with an interpreter translating into Arabic. No witnesses were called and no testimony was challenged. The judge never once looked at the children or spoke to them. Some children only met their lawyers for the first time in the courtroom. Each child's case lasted barely a few minutes. I think that I am correct in saying that there was no outcome reached in any case that we saw, although my colleagues will correct me if I am wrong. The cases were all continued. I do not know if that had anything to do with our presence, but that was the situation.

For all the children we saw that morning, the only thing that mattered was seeing their families, perhaps for the first time in months. They showed no faith in the proceedings, neither caring what the judge was saying nor expecting to be released. One child had to shout out to his parents the name of the prison inside Israel where he was being held. His parents had had no idea where he was being kept. Nearly all the children were there on stone-throwing offences. One was being tried on the basis of a confession from another minor, which was later withdrawn.

Lawyers advise children and their families to plead guilty, not because the children might be guilty, but because if they plead guilty, they might be released after three months, whereas if they plead innocent, they are likely to be detained for about a year, which for a child of that age is unthinkable. In 2006, acquittals were granted in just 0.26% of child cases, which shows a presumption of guilt, not innocence. All prosecuted children get a security record that prevents them from entering Israel or Jerusalem, which affects them, as do the other aspects of growing up under occupation.

For decades, our Government have said that Israel must adhere to international law, including the fourth Geneva convention, including by ending illegal settlements, home demolitions, collective punishments, the use of human shields and the theft of resources and artefacts. It also means addressing the treatment of Palestinian children in military courts and detention centres. Is it not time for the British Government to show that they are serious about their responsibilities to hold Israel and its leaders to account? Israel cannot remain above international law.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): Much of the account that my hon. Friend is giving is first-hand and distressing. Although I know that we will hear more in her conclusion, will she also make the case that the process remains a two-way one? Israel should be held to account for its obligations under international law, but it is also important that the Palestinian Authority play their part in creating meaningful peace and security in the region.

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Sandra Osborne: Of course that is true, but I point out that Defence for Children International is carrying out research on both juvenile court systems to assess their equity. The fact remains that the Israeli Government treat Palestinians and Israelis in two different ways, one involving military courts and the other civil courts, which cannot possibly be justified.

Guto Bebb: Is it not the case that that dual system recognises that the west bank, for example, is not an annexed part of Israel? There is an issue in terms of the legal systems and the Palestinian Authority being coupled with Israel. As those areas are not annexed, the legal system that Israel faces involves a different way of dealing with those children.

Sandra Osborne: The Palestinians have their own system for dealing with juvenile crime. I might add that we raised some issues about that with the Palestinian Prime Minister, who certainly acknowledged that there are problems with adult crime. The occupation has gone on for years, and the fact that Palestine is at least facing up to its difficulties and trying to improve the situation is laudable. However, it does not really matter what the legal system is. The system used by the Israelis breaks international law. That is completely unacceptable, and it is high time that something was done about it.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this enormously important debate. Further to the previous intervention, if I understood it correctly, it cannot be defensible to argue simply that because Israel is illegally occupying other territories, that justifies a dual and discriminatory legal system that contravenes international law and the human rights of Palestinians. Surely that is not what the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) was arguing, was it?

Sandra Osborne: I certainly hope not. I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government accept that such treatment is a serious breach of the fourth Geneva convention, and that the Government should implore Israel to abide by its treaty obligations? Will he raise those issues personally with the Israeli Prime Minister on behalf of the UK Government? Has he made any effort to view the military courts? I know that he will visit the west bank shortly; will he consider seeing the situation for himself?

DCI has made the following recommendations based on its detailed research into the legal issues. The Israeli authorities should:

Those found responsible for such abuse should be brought to justice. Furthermore:

Thank you, Mr Howarth, for the opportunity to have this debate. I hope that the Minister will take this serious matter on board.

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11.15 am

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing this important debate. I have been to the area many times and seen aspects of the occupation and its impact on the lives of Palestinians that I can only describe as Kafkaesque. Having been there so many times, I thought that the area had lost its capacity to shock me. I had read reports by Defence for Children International and other non-governmental organisations about the treatment of child prisoners in Israeli jails, and I had read United Nations reports about the use of detention, but as it is a part of the world in which facts are often the subject of dispute and counter-dispute, I thought that the chance to go to a military prison and court would be valuable, so I could see with my own eyes what happens.

When I saw the military court and what went on there, I knew that the area still had the capacity to shock me, with a vengeance. As my hon. Friend graphically described, when I saw children come into the room-it would be over-egging it to describe it as a courtroom in the way that most of us would understand the term-shuffling because their legs are shackled together, and with their hands in handcuffs, it hit me. It hit me even more to be told by an observer, a brave Israeli woman who monitors what goes on in such courtrooms week in, week out, that what we saw was better than normal. The children came in handcuffed with their hands in front of them, but all too often their hands are cuffed behind their backs.

It hit me when I saw the look on the face of a child who only wanted to see his mother, who had come to the court to see her child, probably for the first time since he was arrested in the middle of the night. There were two ranks of chairs in the spectators' gallery, and we happened to be in the front row. There were not enough seats, and some parents sat in the row behind us. When some of my colleagues offered to give up their seats to the parents so they could be a bit closer to their children, they were told by the security guard that it was not allowed and that the Palestinian parents had to sit in the second rank. When one sees such things for oneself, one cannot ignore it and say, "Well, this is just something to do with the political situation there." It is totally unacceptable.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): The hon. Gentleman paints an extremely distressing picture. Having said that, it is important to point out that the hon. Lady told us that the vast majority of such children face charges of throwing stones, but is it not the case that much more serious accusations are made against many: for example, being involved in shootings, throwing Molotov cocktails or attacking military vehicles? Is it not the case that in a civilised society, putting somebody on trial for such behaviour is a reasonable response?

Richard Burden: I cannot envisage any situation in which a child, whatever they are alleged to have done, should be manacled, shackled and denied the right to see their parents. We cannot start discriminating against someone on the basis of the offence for which they are being tried. That does not excuse holding and treating children in ways that are contrary to the UN convention on the rights of the child and to the provisions of the
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Geneva convention. My views on the Israel-Palestine issue are well known-I do not claim to be impartial or always objective-but I would like to think that if I sat in a Palestinian court and saw an Israeli child being brought in shackled and manacled with their hands in front of them or behind their backs, I would not say, "Well, we have to remember that the Palestinians are actually living under occupation." I hope that the hon. Gentleman would see that the same thing works the other way around. Whatever a child is alleged to have done, such treatment is unacceptable.

The hon. Gentleman is right that those teenagers are often charged with a range of offences, but the most common charge by far is for stone throwing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock said, DCI reported in 2009 that of the 192 cases in which it represented such children, 117 were for a charge of stone throwing, which is 61%. I do not want to go over the ground of whether the charges brought against those children are questionable-I think that many of my colleagues will speak about that in due course-but I want to say something about stone throwing and the context in which it happens.

Stone-throwing incidents frequently take place in areas close to Israeli settlements in the west bank, which are, as we have heard, illegal under international law. Palestinians living there, in a very literal sense, see those settlements as a concrete manifestation of occupation, a manifestation that is increasing in size and population. The presence and expansion of settlements and the dispossession or eviction of Palestinians to make way for them creates a tinderbox for violent confrontation. The settlements all too often bring Israeli soldiers and settlers in the occupied territory close to Palestinian population centres, and Israeli soldiers have sometimes shot children close to settlements and the separation barrier.

We have also seen a worrying rise in settler violence, according to UN monitors and human rights groups in the area. In 2010, there were on average 35 incidents of settler violence a month, an increase from 15 in 2006. As my hon. Friend said, we saw at first hand the evidence of some of those attacks near the town of Nablus and spoke directly with some of the Palestinian victims. Not all of the allegations stand up, but all the indications from the UN and others show that settler violence is a growing and real problem. It is a matter of concern in the context of this debate that more than 90% of cases of alleged settler violence that are investigated by the Israeli authorities are closed without any charges being filed. It is a very different picture for charges brought against Palestinians, particularly in the way in which Palestinian children are arrested, detained and sentenced.

As we have heard, there is a dual system of law based on nationality. Few Israeli settlers are charged with offences committed in the occupied west bank, but when they are, they are prosecuted in regular civilian courts within the state of Israel. Palestinians who are arrested, however, have to go to military courts and are held in military prison. That applies to children as well as adults. Palestinian children in the west bank go to military courts, but Israeli children go to civilian juvenile courts. What counts as a child in such cases depends on whether they are Palestinian or Israeli. The minimum age for criminal responsibility is the same for Israelis
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and Palestinians; in both cases, it is 12. However, the minimum age for a full custodial sentence in the Israeli civil system is 14, and in the Israeli military system it is 12. The age of majority for Israelis is 18, but for Palestinians it is 16. On the legal right to have a parent present during questioning, there is a partial right for Israeli children, but no such right for Palestinian children. It has to be said that in neither case is there a legal right to have a lawyer present. Is there audio-visual recording for interrogations? For Israeli children the answer is yes, but for Palestinian children it is no. The maximum period of detention before being brought before a judge is 48 hours for Israeli children, but 8 days for Palestinian children.

The maximum period of detention without access to a lawyer is 48 hours for an Israeli child, but for Palestinian children it is 90 days. The maximum period for detention without charge for an Israeli child is 40 days, for a Palestinian child it is 188 days. The maximum period of detention between being charged and the conclusion of a trial is 6 months for an Israeli child, but two years for a Palestinian child. Bail is denied in 20% of cases for Israeli children, but in 87.5% of cases for Palestinian children. Custodial sentences are imposed in 6.5% of cases for Israeli children, but in 83% of cases for Palestinian children. If that is not a form of apartheid in the legal system, I do not know how else to describe it. When victims of such apartheid are children, it become even more distasteful.

As chair of the all-party Britain-Palestine group, I do not claim to be impartial on the political situation in the west bank, but as I said to the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), I would like to think that if the boot was on the other foot I would take exactly the same view.

Mr Andrew Smith: My hon. Friend's commitment in that area is widely recognised. I invite him to speculate on why Israel continues in that fashion, given that it does such enormous damage to its international reputation and to the case it makes for self-defence. Could it be that the culture of subservience that is being inculcated is calculated by the Israeli authorities to confer benefits that outweigh the damage to its international reputation, not least because of the pusillanimity of the international community when confronted with such blatant disregard for human rights and international law?

Richard Burden: My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and we can only speculate on that. To some extent, we have already heard the answer today. Somehow, rights that should be inviolable and indivisible are being qualified, largely because Israel feels under threat. They are being qualified in a way that I do not think Israel would accept for any other state in the world. If we are to reach a settlement in that part of the world, the need to recognise that people have rights, irrespective of whether they are Palestinian or Israeli, is fundamental. We should not say that mistreating children in court is bad and then say that we should remember why it happens. Mistreating children in court is wrong, and we should be big enough to say that without qualification.

Guto Bebb: The hon. Gentleman has stated that he is not impartial on the issue, which is a reasonable point for him to make. It is important to note that it is asked
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time and again why Israel behaves in that way. I do not believe for one second that Israel would behave in that way unless it was faced with an insurrection that put its citizens in danger, and that insurrection is unfortunately utilising young people in the Palestinian territories. Does he not condemn the use of young people by terrorist organisations in the Palestinian territories to attack Israeli citizens? Does he not condemn the use of young people in such an inappropriate behaviour?

Richard Burden: The hon. Gentleman again makes my point for me. I absolutely do condemn that, without qualification. However, will he condemn, without qualification, the treatment of children in Israeli prisons? I invite him to intervene on me again.

Guto Bebb: I do not think that that can be done without qualification, because the context is crucial. In this debate, we have heard various claims about stone throwing and so on, but nothing, for example, about the 54 young children who were arrested for throwing grenades. The context is important. We know that this country has also behaved inappropriately in terms of human rights when specific circumstances called for unacceptable behaviour; for example, in respect of court services in Northern Ireland. Sometimes things have to be put in context.

Richard Burden: I am afraid that I do not share the hon. Gentleman's view that circumstances may call for unacceptable behaviour. If behaviour is unacceptable, it is unacceptable, and it is unacceptable in this case.

In conclusion, I again invite the Minister to agree with the delegation's recommendations. We came back with some specific recommendations about what we should call on Israel to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock made these points, which bear brief repetition. First, no child should be interrogated in the absence of a lawyer of their choice or a family member. Secondly, all interrogation of children should be recorded audio-visually. That now applies to Israeli children but not to Palestinian children. Thirdly, we should call on Israel to ensure that all evidence suspected of being obtained through ill-treatment or torture is rejected by military courts. Fourthly, all credible allegations of ill-treatment and torture should be thoroughly and impartially investigated, and those responsible brought to justice. And, fifthly, no Palestinian child from the occupied territories should be detained outside the provisions of article 76 of the Geneva convention.

The UK has a particular responsibility in this situation. Not only is it a signatory to the fourth Geneva convention, it is a high contracting party to it. It is important that we do rather more than agree that such things are unacceptable; there is an obligation on us to do something about them. I hope that the Minister will give an indication not just of his views on these things-I have no doubt that he will share our abhorrence of some of the things that we saw, and that would be a good, important start, but it is important to say not just what we think about such things but what we are prepared to do about them.

11.32 am

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, for the first time. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for
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Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing this important debate. As has already been indicated, I was one of four Members of Parliament from the all-party group on Palestine who visited the west bank only last week. I do not have any long-standing commitment to the Palestinian cause as such, but as a new MP, I felt that it behoved me to look at the situation with my own eyes, to make my own objective judgment on what I saw, and to share my evidence with the House.

Last Monday, I was in an Israeli military court in Ofer with my colleagues and the non-governmental organisation Defence for Children International, which was mentioned earlier. I received a briefing from the NGO's solicitors but also had an opportunity, through an interpreter, to chat with some of the families of the children detainees. I would like to use this opportunity to record my thanks and those of the whole delegation for the excellent work that NGOs such as Defence for Children International perform. They do valuable work documenting what is actually happening, bearing witness and providing information that we in turn can bring to the attention of the Minister in the hope that some of the issues can be addressed.

The situation facing Palestinian child detainees-"Palestinian" is an important distinction to make-is serious in its own right, but as colleagues have said, it is also symptomatic of some of the other, interrelated issues in play in the occupied territories. The illegal settlements on the west bank and in East Jerusalem have already been mentioned; in many respects, they are becoming a kind of de facto annexation. Also mentioned were the seizure of water resources and Palestinian lands, which we also visited. We spoke with Palestinians, NGOs and various other organisations, including the United Nations.

The military court system plays an important part in those wider issues, and I want to concentrate my remarks on it and how it is applied to Palestinian children in detention. It is important to repeat something that has already been said: Israel's actions represent serious breaches of the fourth Geneva convention, the UN convention against torture and the UN convention on the rights of the child.

Frankly, the experience last week of seeing the treatment of Palestinian child detainees was shocking. I am the father of a 13-year-old child, and the image of children of 12 and 13 in prison fatigues with leg irons and manacles being marched into court was appalling. I found it difficult to come to terms with it. Although that was the first time I had witnessed such violations, they are not recent. They have been happening consistently over the past 43 years of the military occupation.

Israel signed up to the UN convention on the rights of the child in 1991. Does the Minister agree with UNICEF, which only last month stated that Israel was in tangible breach of that convention? Will he not only ask but insist that Israel applies the convention to its conduct, not only in its own territories but in the occupied territories?

It seems that arrest and detention are used by the Israeli authorities as their default position. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock referred to article 37(b) of the UN convention on the rights of the child, which states that the arrest, detention
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or imprisonment of children should be the last resort. However, for Palestinians, imprisonment without due process seems to be the measure of first resort. Under the convention, authorities should refrain from detaining juveniles who are undergoing trial, but Israel detains them in 87.5% of cases. Children are frequently taken into detention inside Israel, as, of course, are adults, but I want to concentrate on child detainees.

Israel has a clear obligation, and there is a clear violation of article 76 of the fourth Geneva convention. The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) asked whether there should be some dispensation because Israel is in dispute about whether occupied territories or some annexation is involved. This is occurring in occupied territory, and Israel has a clear obligation in international law under article 76. By removing adults and, indeed, children from the occupied territories to detention centres and prisons in Israel, it is in clear breach of its obligations, just as it is in breach by moving settlers into the occupied territories.

I would like to share some of the conversations that I had with the families. The standard operating procedure is as follows. Palestinian children are often arrested at checkpoints. They are not arrested in situ for throwing stones at the army-the arrests happen afterwards. Children may be taken off the street or, most commonly, from the family home. During house arrests, large numbers of Israeli soldiers typically surround the family home, often in the early hours of the morning, between 2 am and 4 am, and, once a child has been identified for arrest, he or she is often roughed up-slapped or kicked-then blindfolded, and their hands are tied behind their back with a plastic tie. The child would then be placed in the back of a military vehicle, often on the floor, and, again, they would suffer further physical and psychological abuse on the way to interrogation and detention centres.

On arrest, children and their families are seldom informed of the charges against them. Often, the evidence is confessions from other children, who have been asked to identify their friends who have been involved in stone-throwing. The evidence used is questionable. Families are not informed of where their children are taken; most often they are taken out of the west bank to detention centres or prisons in Israel. On arrival at the detention or interrogation centre, the child is either placed in a cell or taken straight for interrogation. I am told that common interrogation practices include slapping, kicking-

Guto Bebb: The hon. Gentleman specifically said "I am told". Is this hearsay or actual evidence?

Grahame M. Morris: I am relating the evidence that was relayed to me. I did not see this with my own eyes. I had conversations with families of detainees and a reputable source, in so far as the NGOs that I spoke about-international lawyers-have documented these cases, and there is a common strand, in terms of the modus operandi and methods that are employed in both the arrest and interrogation of the children.

Guto Bebb rose-

Grahame M. Morris: I will give way one more time.

Guto Bebb: I am extremely grateful. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the MO-in other words, a pattern of behaviour. There has been a pattern of behaviour during this
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debate, because numerous references have been made to stone-throwing, but there has been no recognition of the fact that, for example, 217 Palestinian children were arrested between 2000 and 2009 for involvement in suicide bombings. Several references have also been made to torture; the international Red Cross has never censured Israel for any torturous behaviour in its prisons.

Grahame M. Morris: I will come on to that in a moment, but I want to press on with what happens to the children before doing so. I am not mounting a defence of what they have done, but explaining what happens. I am certainly not defending violence or criminal acts. I am simply explaining, as the father of a teenage child, what happens, which is unacceptable and in clear breach of international obligations.

On arrival at the detention or interrogation centre, the child is either placed in a cell or taken straight for interrogation. Common interrogation practices include slapping and kicking, verbal abuse of and shouting at children, who are often threatened into confessing. Threats are made against the child's family, including the threat of having their homes demolished or having travel documents withdrawn, which means that the family will no longer be able to work. In most cases the children confess to the allegations put to them within the first couple of hours. It is not uncommon for children to be given a confession written in Hebrew, on which their signatures are put. Hon. Members should remember that, often, these children do not understand Hebrew. Another disturbing aspect of these detentions and arrests is that the children are not visited by their families; they are not allowed visits. As has been mentioned, all bar one of the centres where the Palestinian children from the west bank are taken are inside Israel.

Israel, by wilfully depriving a protected person of their right to a fair and regular trial, is in grave breach of the fourth Geneva convention. I should like to draw the Minister's attention to the legal duty, which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) mentioned, on all 194 high contracting parties to that convention, including the United Kingdom, to provide effective penal sanction for persons committing or ordering the commissioning of such grave breaches, and to search for and prosecute those responsible. Minister, children as young as 12 are regularly denied access to a lawyer and visits from their families.

In 2008, bail was denied in 91% of all cases involving Palestinian children. I saw evidence of that with my own eyes at first hand, having seen children who had been detained for three months without access to, or contact with, their parents or families.

The hon. Member for Aberconwy asked why there were no documented cases of complaints of torture. I asked the same question. Between 2001 and 2008, over 600 complaints were filed against Israeli Security Agency interrogators for alleged ill-treatment and torture. To date, there has not been a single criminal investigation-not one. There cannot be any prosecutions, because the Israeli authorities do not investigate complaints.

Palestinian children, including girls, have been held under administrative detention, which is detention without charge or trial, granted by administrative order rather than by judicial decree. There is also a broader denial of freedom. To put all the issues relating to detention in
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the context of the broader picture, Palestinian children have been denied freedom, live under military occupation and face inordinate obstacles. For example, they have to negotiate checkpoints just to get to school, to visit medical facilities and even to get to their homes.

A whole generation of Palestinian children are being denied their childhood, and not just on the west bank. I read an article in The Guardian recently about the Prime Minister having highlighted issues in Gaza, which he described as a "prison camp". When will the Foreign Secretary call the Israel ambassador in and say that these persistent and systemic violations of international law are unacceptable and will have consequences for our relations? The Israeli Government have demanded that we change perfectly proper British legislation about the prosecution of war criminals, yet they continue to commit war crimes.

The Israelis pretend that they are adhering to their obligations under international conventions, and we in the west pretend that we believe they are adhering to these conventions. Now it is time for action to bring about justice and to relieve the suffering of Palestinian children and the Palestinian people in both Gaza and the west bank.

11.48 am

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing such an important debate. I am amazed that Members of Parliament are seeking to justify Israel's being allowed to contravene international law. I am disappointed, to say the least, that certain people believe that children can be tret in this way, because, regardless of colour or creed, children are children and we should be looking to protect them under international law.

Article 37(b) of the UN convention on the rights of the child, which has been mentioned by Opposition Members, states clearly:

That is not the case in Palestine or Israel. Children are taken to court, or to detention centres up and down the west bank and detained for long periods. Around 700 children are prosecuted a year, and 9,000 adult Palestinians have been prosecuted in military courts. Since 2000, around 6,500 Palestinian children have been detained. What I saw at in the military courts beggared belief. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), I am a parent, and I have children. The way children were tret in the military courts was absolutely savage, and cannot be justified. Kids as young as 12, and up to 16 were frightened out of their wits. They had not seen their parents since they were detained. They were snatched at the dead of night, bound, put in the back of an Israeli army truck, kicked and beaten, and taken to a detention centre with no parents, no lawyers and no one at all to protect them.

Most of the children-62%-were detained on stone-throwing charges, but even if every one of them were 100% guilty, no member of the public, let alone a Member of Parliament, should try to justify the treatment that they received.

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Guto Bebb: Labour Members seem to treat Israel as a special case. In effect, they are saying that even if the children in question are guilty-the hon. Gentleman's figures show that 38% were charged with issues unrelated to stone-throwing-Israel has no right to self-defence. If young people from the Palestinian territories are being used by terrorist organisations to attack the state of Israel, should the hon. Gentleman not condemn that, and be as keen to do so as he is to condemn the state of Israel?

Ian Lavery: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The simple answer is that even if children are 100% guilty, there is no justification whatever for treating them in the way they are being tret. I have seen that with my own eyes, but I will move on.

The people we are talking about are subject to all sorts of abuse, including sleep deprivation, beatings, slappings, denial of food and water, position abuse, exposure to extreme heat and cold, and denial of access to toilets and washing facilities. Some 81% of those children-81% of the Palestinian children detained-confessed during interrogation, and 32% of those confessions were, as my hon. Friends said, written in Hebrew, so how are they supposed to understand anything? It is a disgrace, and a deliberate attempt to intimidate Palestinian children in any way, shape or form.

How can that be in the best interests of children? If a child pleads guilty, they may be penalised for around three and a half months, and 81%-the vast majority-do plead guilty. They do so because if they plead not guilty it will probably be one or two months before their case is even heard in court, and the full duration of the process may take up to a year. It is common sense that if the penalty is three and a half months for pleading guilty as opposed to in excess of a year for pleading not guilty, they will plead guilty. Again, that is intimidation of the highest order. The problem following prosecution is that the children, and members of their families, have a security record, so they cannot enter Israel or parts of Jerusalem.

I shall touch briefly on some cases of mistreatment of children. The details come from the Defence for Children International. Palestinian children have been used as human shields and their lives have been put at risk. In August, a 13-year-old was reportedly used as a human shield near Nablus. In October, the Israeli military authorities opened an investigation into the use of a 16-year-old girl as a shield. In November, two Israeli soldiers who used a nine-year-old Palestinian boy as a human shield received suspended sentences and were demoted after being convicted of "inappropriate conduct". The unnamed soldiers ordered Majeh Rabah from the Tel Al-Hawa neighbourhood in Gaza city to check bags for explosives in January 2009 towards the end of the Israeli three-week offensive.

Will the Minister confirm that no one, let alone a nine-year-old child, should be used as a human shield? Does he agree that that is a disgrace, and a clear violation of international law? Has he made the strongest representations about the failure to hold those soldiers to account? We heard of disturbing new cases of tasers being used on children during interrogation. Will the Minister look into that as a matter of urgency?

Young people were threatened with electric shocks, and the threat alone convinced many of them to plead guilty to charges. But electric shocks are not just threatened;
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they are used in interrogation. We must remember that those children are on their own, have not seen their parents, and are not legally represented, yet they are blindfolded, with shackled arms and feet, and threatened with electric shocks. We heard reports from DCI that some children have had electrodes attached to their genitals with the threat of electric shocks. That is absolutely horrendous, and enough to break any reasonable person's heart.

We heard of a child being held in solitary confinement for 65 days at Al Jalameh. In east Jerusalem there have been an increased number of cases of abuse of children following clashes near the illegal Israeli settlements at Silwan, which we visited only a few days ago. Some 380 settlers had moved into 18 homes in that overcrowded Palestinian district of 13,500 people, leading to the demolition of Palestinian homes. In 2010, more than 1,200 criminal cases had been opened against children from occupied east Jerusalem alleging involvement in stone-throwing incidents. The youngest boy to be mistreated was only seven years old.

[Mr Roger Gale in the Chair]

There are many other problems in Jerusalem. A case lasting two years involved an innocent child. In another case, eight Palestinian teenagers were held for two years on testimony from soldiers that was subsequently overturned. There have been serious breaches of the fourth Geneva convention, and of the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the UN convention on the rights of the child, article 3 of which clearly states:

That article is blatantly and openly violated. Those are not recent violations; they have happened consistently over 43 years of military occupation.

At some stage, we as politicians and members of the public must ask what we can do to ensure that Israel stops breaching and violating those articles, international laws and conventions. Over the past few days, UK representatives at the United Nations have agreed at committee level that such violations have taken place. Who are those representatives? What is their mandate? What are we doing about it? Is it for the UK Government to tell representatives on UN committees that action must be taken? We cannot continue to ignore such violations and the systematic abuse of children.

This is a cross-party matter; I am not here spoiling for a fight with the Government, and I hope that we can broadly agree that this matter is about children being abused at an international level. We have a duty as parents, fathers and decent people to protect children no matter what the circumstances, and regardless of their colour or creed, whether they are black or white, rich or poor, or which country they come from. I hope that the Minister will agree and explain to the House what we can do together in the simple name of moral humanity.

12.1 pm

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Gale, for the final two speeches of the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend
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the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing this debate, and I pay tribute to her long-standing and consistent advocacy of human rights in general, and the Palestinian cause in particular, during her time in the House. The same applies to my other hon. Friends who have contributed to the debate.

Over the past hour, we have heard powerful and often shocking testimonies that demonstrate the importance to the work of the House of delegations such as that sent by the Britain-Palestine all-party group to the west bank last week. It is welcome to have such an immediate and early opportunity to address the situation viewed by those who visited last week.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt) indicated assent.

Stephen Twigg: I see the Minister nodding-we have cross-party agreement on that.

This is my first opportunity to speak about the middle east since I joined the shadow Foreign Office team in October. My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the shadow Foreign Secretary, visited Israel and the west bank last week, and met a range of Palestinian and Israeli leaders, including President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. I would like to reaffirm the Labour party's long-standing commitment to the middle east peace process and a solution based on the two states of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, and human rights at the heart of the process. Progress will require action by both sides, although in the context of this debate, particularly by Israel to end the expansion of settlements and the blockade of Gaza, as well as action by the Palestinians and other Arab states to fulfil their obligations under the principles of the Quartet.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock focused on the plight of Palestinian children and, although I am a friend of Israel, I condemn everything that we have heard about today. That should not be difficult for a friend of Israel to do. If we are serious about the peace process, those of us who have long been friends of Israel must be clear that we are also friends of the Palestinians. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) nodding; I know he believes that that can be achieved, provided that we stick with the absolute principles of human rights and democracy.

I deplore the methods that we have heard about in such detail today, primarily because they violate the universal principles of human rights, but also because they exacerbate tensions and undermine the prospects for peace. I pay tribute to the organisations mentioned during the debate and the brave NGOs that take up such causes. In particular, I mention Defence for Children International and the Israeli human rights organisation, B'Tselem, which does fantastic work in that field.

My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) mentioned night arrests, which are of particular concern especially if, as is alleged, they involve the use of physical violence. That cannot be right morally, but it must also worsen community tensions in what are already difficult and fragile circumstances. As a number of my hon. Friends have said, interrogation methods
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include the use of blindfolding and sleep deprivation to obtain confessions. Detainees are often presented with a confession written in Hebrew-a language that the vast majority of them do not understand. Several cases have been cited that suggest that people have signed confessions that they did not understand, which is not right or defensible. There is a lack of legal representation for detainees; many reports from international and Israeli human rights groups describe detainees not being permitted proper legal counsel throughout their interrogation. As we have heard, the majority of cases end in a confession.

Data from B'Tselem suggest that the number of detainees have been relatively constant over the recent period. At the end of October, just over a month ago, 251 minors were detained by Israeli security forces in the west bank, including east Jerusalem-my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock also cited that figure. That is of great concern, but I am particularly worried about those 34 detainees who are aged between 12 and 15, and the two aged between 16 and 18 who are being held under administrative detention.

Earlier, there was an exchange with the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), who is no longer in his seat, about the application of human rights conventions in the occupied territories, and the security situation. I have two observations about that. First, even if Israel argues that obligations on human rights do not apply in the case of an occupied territory, international humanitarian law is clear and should be respected. I would urge Israel to apply the conventions on human rights as well. Secondly, as has been mentioned previously, according to the convention on the rights of the child-to which Israel is a welcome signatory-a child is defined as

Nevertheless, we still have the inconsistencies and discriminatory practices to which reference has been made.

Mr Andrew Smith: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his inaugural speech on the middle east as a member of the shadow Foreign Office team. What additional measures does he believe the international community should take to pressurise Israel to conform with the conventions that he advocates?

Stephen Twigg: I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. It is crucial to have a consistent approach from the Government, the European Union and particularly from the United States Government-the one country to which Israel listens. The issues in question must be raised consistently, just as we would do with other countries around the world.

One specific point that relates tangentially to the debate about settlements is the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. Following her visit last week, she said that she will press for products that come from the settlements to be labelled as such, so that consumers who want to exercise consumer choice not to purchase settlement-produced goods can do so.

I am conscious of the time and I want to say a few things in conclusion. First, I pay tribute to the excellent work of a wide range of NGOs, some Palestinian, some Israeli and some international. Save the Children does very important work in the west bank. I was reading about an example of that yesterday. The post-trauma
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rehabilitation of Palestinian ex-detainee children programme reaches hundreds of children. It works with formerly detained children, most of whom undergo individual and group counselling sessions in addition to vocational training and assessment programmes. The post-trauma rehabilitation programme, for instance, offers opportunities for children who are often trapped in a cycle of conflict. That work is critical in addressing post-traumatic stress syndrome which, it is reported, many of the ex-detainee children experience following their ordeal.

I support a point made by one of my hon. Friends in relation to the reports of Israeli soldiers using a child as a human shield and the lenient sentences recently dealt to those soldiers. I say to Israel that we need to see a firmer stance being taken by the Israeli courts in such cases. Evidence documented by B'Tselem has shown that cases of human rights abuses such as those that we have heard about today are not isolated. Israel has a responsibility to end the culture of impunity. I argue strongly not only that that is right legally and morally, but that it is in Israel's own best interests.

Of course, Palestinian human rights are violated not only by Israel. They are sometimes violated by the Palestinian Authority itself and by Hamas in Gaza. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) referred to that in his intervention. Human Rights Watch said earlier this year:

A recent example is the case of 42-year-old Ahmed Salhab from Hebron-not a child; an adult. Ahmed was detained by the Palestinian Authority in the west bank in September. Following his release in October, Human Rights Watch called for an investigation into his treatment when it learned that he had sustained serious spinal injuries and suffered mental distress during his detention.

The excellent Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights publishes regular monthly reports that demonstrate human rights abuses by the Palestinian Authority in the west bank and by Hamas in Gaza. It is vital that we are consistent, so we must condemn these abuses across the board. Today's focus, however, is on the human rights of children in the west bank. There are clearly broader human rights issues for which we must press all parties in the region take responsibility-examples are freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the media, and gender and sexuality issues-and of course there are many other countries where children's rights are violated.

The debate is timely: it is being held during human rights week, and 10 December is world human rights day. I hope that today's debate can contribute to increased public awareness and increase pressure on all parties to abide by international conventions and uphold human rights. In conclusion, I shall echo something that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield said: the UK has a special responsibility in this case. I look forward to the Minister's response to this important debate. I strongly believe that a clear and consistent approach to human rights should always be at the centre of the UK's foreign policy. I hope that the
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Minister will take every opportunity to press both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to uphold human rights in the west bank. I hope in particular, following what we have heard today, that he will raise the concerns that exist on both sides of the House about the treatment of Palestinian children in detention.

12.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): It is a pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Mr Gale. I echo the congratulations to the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on initiating the debate. It is an object lesson in why MPs go to places-to see things at first hand and report back. A number of hon. Members mentioned that and I shall come to it later.

The human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territories continues to cause concern and was high on the agenda of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs during his recent visit to Israel and the occupied territories. I hope to explain in the course of my remarks what action we are taking to raise these issues with the Israeli Government.

Before I do so, I welcome the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) to the Opposition Front Bench. It is a pleasure to see him in that position. I think that we understand each other very well and understand where we are coming from on a matter about which there is a large measure of cross-party agreement. That will be particularly useful as we work through the next few months, which will be important for the middle east peace process.

The other hon. Members who made contributions deserve to be mentioned. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) has a long-standing commitment to the region that we are discussing and spoke, as always, with both passion and knowledge. The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) made the case for an early visit by new Members of Parliament to areas of concern that have, alas, occupied the time of the House for all the years that I have been here. He spoke movingly of his own experiences. I do not necessarily support all the allegations with which he concluded his remarks, but plainly he will make a number of serious contributions on this issue in the future.

The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) spoke with understandable emotion about what he had observed. He was right to raise the issues relating to human shields, which are unacceptable. It is as unacceptable for Israeli soldiers to use them as it is for members of Hamas to use them when they position their gun emplacements and their weapons against Israel in crowded civilian areas because they know exactly what the response of the world community will be if Israel seeks to take action against them. Both are wrong, and it is correct of the Israeli authorities to recognise that and make the determination that they do, although there has been widespread concern about the punishment meted out when these injustices were overturned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), who has not been able to stay for the conclusion of the debate, made a series of interventions that, while never condoning ill treatment, reminded us, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby also did, that this is
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far from a straightforward situation. We would be naive not to recognise some of the pressures placed on children by those who seek to use them for ulterior motives. My hon. Friend was right to raise that. His remarks and those of other hon. Members emphasised again the sharp divisions on Israel and related issues in the House. The answer to that, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby made clear, is that we have to get a solution and we have to support the middle east peace process that is under way.

The only thing that will end what we have spent so much of our time discussing over the years is a settlement that is agreed on both sides. I believe that that would be very much according to the terms that the hon. Gentleman set out. It has to be a two-state solution-a secure and recognised Israel side by side with a viable Palestine; Jerusalem as a shared capital; and answers to the issues relating to refugees and resources. We are looking for that, and we urge all parties involved in negotiations to stay at it. Ultimately, it is only the removal of the sense of injustice, which lingers because there has not been a solution, that will deal with the root issues, many of which are at the heart of what we have debated today.

The hon. Gentleman, in his measured remarks, also raised issues on the Palestinian side in relation to human rights. For completeness, I should like to mention them as well. Hon. Members should be under no illusion: I shall devote the bulk of my remarks to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock and her report. However, for the sake of completeness, it is important to place these points on the record as well. The UK Government have very serious concerns about the human rights record of Hamas in Gaza. That includes arbitrary detention, repression of dissent, curtailment of free speech and the suppression of women's rights, as well as the ongoing threat to Israel's civilian population from indiscriminate rocket fire and the continued detention of Gilad Shalit without access to the Red Cross or contact with his family.

We continue to raise our concerns with the Palestinian Authority over allegations of the ill treatment of detainees by Palestinian security services. These rights are indivisible, and although, quite properly, we are spending the bulk of our time dealing with the matters raised by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, it is right to recognise that, as a Government and as a Parliament, our commitment to human rights is across the board.

Turning to the subject of the debate, it is important to set the issue of human rights in the west bank in context. As I mentioned, there is no doubt about the universality of human rights principles, but it important to recognise that Israel has real security concerns that need to be addressed. Following the second intifada of 2000, the number of terrorist attacks against civilian targets in Israel rose to unprecedented levels. Israel's response increased accordingly: many arrests were made, thousands were remanded in administrative detention, movement and access in the west bank were severely restricted and construction of the barrier began. Israel has a right to impose security restrictions to protect its population. There is an argument that the barrier, for example, might be a reasonable way of doing so. However, restricting access to schools and work does nothing to improve the security situation. The barrier should be constructed on the Israeli side of the green line, and should not confiscate Palestinian land. Some of these measures may have helped to improve the security situation.

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It is important to acknowledge the role played by the Palestinian Authority, with help from the international community, including the British support team and its work with General Dayton, to improve the overall security situation. Reform of the Palestinian security sector has gone a long way towards halting the ability of armed groups to act from the west bank. We welcome Israel's corresponding improvements to movement and access in the west bank and the growth of the Palestinian economy, as seen by a successful investment conference a few months ago.

The number of Palestinians held in Israeli detention, including administrative detainees, has fallen, but all that contrasts with the human rights situation. More can be done to match the improved security situation, otherwise Israel risks undermining its own interests and increasingly drawing the attention of the spotlight of international concern. Perhaps this debate, at its simplest, suggests that Israel might protect itself differently in relation to children and to rather greater effect.

We continue to monitor the human rights situation in the west bank, including the issue of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. Where we have concerns, we raise them with the Israeli Government. We would encourage Israel to take those concerns seriously; too often we do not receive formal responses to our lobbying. When we do, the responses often fail to address our concerns in detail, pointing to the prevailing security situation-for example, demonstrations in the west bank that turn violent-and stressing that Israel strives to follow due process. We understand, but we still want answers.

On the specific issue of Palestinians in the Israeli court system, we have a number of concerns about the application of due process and the treatment of Palestinian detainees, in particular where Palestinian children are involved. Many of those concerns relate to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock and Members who accompanied her on her recent visit. We are concerned about the widespread use of administrative detention which, according to international law, should be used only in the most exceptional security cases rather than as routine practice. Administrative detention should be used as a last-ditch preventive measure, not as a punitive measure and an alternative to due process.

We are concerned that Palestinian detainees are dealt with by the Israeli military court system, irrespective of the charges, whereas Israeli settlers who commit violence against Palestinians and their land are dealt with by Israel's civil justice system. Cases heard before the military court system are frequently based on secret evidence not made available to detainees and their lawyers. As we have heard, many convictions are based on confessions, either from the defendants themselves seeking a shorter sentence under plea bargaining or from the evidence of minors facing detention. Access to lawyers is often restricted, with many lawyers unable to meet their clients until they see them in the courtroom. All prisoners should have access to a fair trial.

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