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The final case is about Lea lane in Braxted, where a planning application for a Gypsy site is pending and is with the Planning Inspectorate. The development is clearly inappropriate for the area, but there are concerns that the Planning Inspectorate, which has form, will grant permission on the basis of the applicant’s arguments about limited site provision and, again, human rights, despite serious question marks over the validity of the application and a series of irregularities that have been pointed out. While it is under consideration, I ask the Minister to do everything in his power to ensure that the Planning Inspectorate fully and comprehensively reviews the representations made by Maldon district council and the local community. It would be shocking and appalling if the Planning Inspectorate continued to progress applications and grant permissions for all the wrong reasons.

Many Members have mentioned a common theme that councils and communities still have their hands tied by previous targets, and it seems that the Planning Inspectorate values the human rights of one group over the rights of the settled community. That has created an unsustainable planning system full of problems, which is a big problem because our communities do not trust the system: they have no faith and confidence in it, so they automatically feel discriminated against; and if they do not have a voice, they do not feel represented. Our communities are left feeling pretty disfranchised and our councils feel powerless to act. There is a challenge for the Government, because they have a strong localism agenda that this problem could undermine.

Those are the reasons why we are here and why the system needs substantial reform. I am strongly in favour of giving local communities greater say and ensuring that their voices are heard. At the last general election, I was pleased to stand on my party’s manifesto, which would have addressed many of those fundamental problems through the pledge to give communities greater control over planning, to limit appeals to the Planning Inspectorate and to return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils. “Open Source Planning” highlighted that the Conservatives’ would take action in government to ensure fairness between the settled and the Traveller communities. We need to start to address the problem.

Andrew George: On fairness and even-handedness for the settled community and the unsettled community, which includes those who live in squats and caravans who are “settled” but cannot find adequate accommodation, does the hon. Lady agree that all reports have shown that the life expectancy of Travellers and Gypsies is significantly lower than that of the settled community and that infant mortality and maternal mortality are much higher? In addition, Travellers are hugely disadvantaged in education, with 75% of children regularly in education compared with—

Mr Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. Interventions must be brief.

Priti Patel: We have touched on the fundamental problem, which is the real unfairness in the planning system. Ultimately, that has to be resolved.

We can see in the detail of the proposed circular some of the problems that local communities and councils will encounter. It still instructs local authorities to set pitch and plot targets for 15 years and to identify

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specific plots for the first five years. As now, those targets could be legally challenged in the courts and appealed at the Planning Inspectorate, with people trying to get planning permission or to fight enforcement action by arguing that the targets set are inadequate. It would also force local authorities to consider favourably applications for temporary planning permission if they cannot demonstrate an up-to-date five-year supply of desirable sites. It states that councils should determine applications from Travellers from anywhere, not only those with local connections, and that provision can be given to Gypsy and Traveller developments on green belt land.

Although the emphasis on locally agreed targets is an improvement on the previous Government’s insistence on top-down national and regional targets, I hope that the Minister will look again at the necessity of implementing the draft circular, which will maintain a damaging imbalance in the planning system. That imbalance must be redressed. We need real balance and fairness.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on her speech. Does not that same policy also require local authorities to take into account historical demand? That could lead to communities such as mine, which have historically had a Traveller population, having an influx of people who have no real local links.

Priti Patel: I absolutely concur.

Returning to the circular, I have talked about the damaging imbalances in the planning system. If Ministers want to continue to have a separate planning circular for Gypsy and Traveller sites, I encourage them to consider including measures to support the rights of settled communities. For example, the circular could contain a presumption against retrospective applications and appeals to the Planning Inspectorate. It could also emphasise the importance of decision makers valuing equally the rights and representations of the settled community and of Gypsies and Travellers. Communities such as those in Pattiswick, Tolleshunt Knights or Braxted are not asking for special treatment or favours: all they want is a planning system that fully represents their views, gives them a fair chance and does not disadvantage them because of their residential status.

I want to impress on the Minister the importance of ensuring that councils and communities are adequately resourced and able to set appropriate pitch allocations. I can tell him now that that is a grave concern to the three local authorities that cover my constituency. They simply do not have the resources they need; when they try to deal with the problem, they come up against endless barriers. Any requirements in future policies on local authorities to set targets must enable them to do so with the confidence that they are in control of developments and not at the mercy of the courts or, in particular, the Planning Inspectorate.

Finally, I would like the Government to tackle what I consider to be an alarming culture in the Planning Inspectorate. From the cases I have come across in the past 14 months, it seems that the inspectorate is too willing to cower down in the face of human rights arguments, which are the first port of call in the cases

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that I have seen. That is not surprising given that the Planning Inspectorate has held workshops for its inspectors to learn from Gypsy and Traveller groups about their planning needs. In the interests of balance, I ask the Minister to encourage the Planning Inspectorate to hold workshops with our constituents, who have all been disproportionately and inappropriately affected by developments, so that the inspectorate gains a better understanding of their needs and rights. There is a greater than ever need for that now, because we will have neighbourhood plans that our constituents will influence.

Mr Aidan Burley (Cannock Chase) (Con): My hon. Friend is making some powerful points about planning law being applied equally to all people. Does she agree that there are also laws about how people live, whether they are settled in a legal camp or not? Gypsies will not earn the respect of the settled community until they agree to be subject to the same tax laws as everybody else, start paying into the national insurance system, give an address by which they can be contacted, abide by the byelaws of an area and start cleaning up after themselves. They will not earn the respect of the settled community until they live and plan like everyone else.

Priti Patel: I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks.

I am about to wrap up—

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Priti Patel: No, I am going to make some final points. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) is right: with rights come responsibilities.

I address my final points to the Minister. Will he ensure that Government policies support councils in taking enforcement actions against unauthorised developments and that the planning system is genuinely fair to all parties? Action needs to be taken to end the practice of placing the rights of one group above those of others, and the powers of the Planning Inspectorate to interfere with decisions taken by democratically accountable councils should be limited. Finally, will he guarantee that local communities and councils are in control of future development in their areas and that they have their destinies in their own hands? That is very much at the heart of localism. I thank the Minister for his time today and for listening to me, and I look forward to other contributions from colleagues.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. A large number of Members wish to speak in the debate. I hope to start the wind-ups at about 3.30 pm, so I plead for the briefest possible contributions. I also remind hon. Members that interventions should be brief.

2.50 pm

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing the debate and on her excellent speech. My constituents would want to be associated with many of her points. I declare an interest as a serving councillor on Kettering borough council.

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I would like to tell hon. Members about a village called Braybrooke in my constituency. There are 22 villages in the parliamentary constituency of Kettering. Braybrooke is situated between the towns of Desborough and Market Harborough, right on the edge of my constituency and on the edge of the county of Northamptonshire. About 325 residents in Braybrooke are on the electoral roll, so it is a small village. However, it is unique in having the only primary school where the pupils are 100% Traveller children, and where the local settled community do not send their children at all. Such a situation exists because of the increase in settlements—pitches—from the Gypsy and Traveller community around the village.

The planning system’s failure to deal with the spread of unauthorised development means that the demographics of the village are being changed in an unacceptable way. I lay the blame for that on the circulars issued by the previous Government and the previous Deputy Prime Minister, which my hon. Friend the Member for Witham mentioned. However, the coalition Government have a chance to change that. My constituents in Kettering, the residents of Braybrooke and myself are looking to the Minister to do something about the matter. We have been in government for 15 months and a consultation is under way. We need to get a move on because my constituents’ hopes have been raised by initiatives such as the Localism Bill and the consultation. We want the Minister to introduce some appropriate policies to stop these unauthorised developments in the future.

Mr Ward: I would be very surprised if all the children attending the school were living on unauthorised sites. Many schools in Bradford are 100% white or 100% Asian. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that we should not allow those schools to exist?

Mr Hollobone: No. What I am saying is that local primary schools are comprehensive and they should attract children from the local area, regardless of their background. This is not an issue of race; it is an issue of behaviour. When I visited the school recently—it is an excellent school that provides good education—I discovered that one of the big problems was that, especially in the summer term, a lot of the Traveller children do not turn up because they are off travelling. A member of the settled community would be reluctant to send their child to a school with such a disruptive atmosphere. I am trying to approach the subject in a sensitive and thoughtful way without going down the route of saying that this is some kind of racial problem. It is an educational and behavioural problem, which needs to be addressed.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): As usual, my hon. Friend is making a very astute speech. Does he share my concern that the disruption and huge turnover of children in the Traveller community has a massive impact not only on the education of children who are not Traveller children, but on resource allocation for teachers and teaching support staff in those schools? In the long run, that has an impact on standard assessment tests and other results.

Mr Hollobone: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He speaks out on behalf of his constituents in Peterborough extremely well. On this issue, I am sure he has the pulse of not only his constituency but the nation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Witham

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said, Travellers are using the Human Rights Act 1998 in relation to access to local schools and as a way to get permission for their previously unauthorised developments. I am trying to say that we should look at the matter the other way round. What about the rights of the settled community in the village of Braybrooke, who are not sending their children to the local school?

Mike Weatherley (Hove) (Con): After pressure from me and my constituency office, we have managed to persuade Brighton and Hove council to charge some long-term van dwellers at Medina house some rates to pay for the services they use. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a good way forward and that some councils could consider doing that to make these people integrate more into the community, or at least to get some return for the services they use?

Mr Hollobone: I am most grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention; he makes an extremely powerful point. As our mutual hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) said earlier, it is all very well for Travellers and others to jump up and down about their rights, but on the other side of the equation is their responsibilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley) makes an excellent point. Everyone else pays their taxes in the normal way, so Travellers should also pay their fair due to society.

Andrew George: As indeed they do on the authorised sites, where those charges and, indeed, local taxes are paid in the proper manner. I do not know about the circumstances in the villages in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but the conundrum that we as Parliament and the Government are facing is that we have to accept—the hon. Gentleman said he is looking at the matter in a sensitive and thoughtful way— that there is a significant unfulfilled need for Traveller sites in this country. The question is, how do we fulfil that need in a way that does not involve Travellers taking their rights and demanding to live on unauthorised developments? We clearly must not allow that to carry on.

Mr Hollobone: I just do not get this point. In the borough of Kettering, lots of people do not have access to the accommodation and housing they need, and thousands of people are on the local authority housing waiting list. It would clearly be wrong to say that, because somebody cannot find the house they need, they can go into the countryside and start building a home of their own. The law would rightly come down on those individuals. Yet members of the Travelling community seem to be able to do exactly that, and they are using the Human Rights Act to get away with it. That is wrong.

My constituents’ fears are being heightened by the latest development around the village of Braybrooke: a site called Greenfields, which is a 37 acre plot. According to the map that has been given to me, the site seems to have been divided up into some 60 plots. It was acquired in the 1990s by a property speculator and the plots are being sold off individually, largely to members of the Travelling community. Buildings—dwellings—are already on some of those plots. The worry is that retrospective planning applications are being made in respect of those dwellings. Given the very poor decisions that are

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being made by the Planning Inspectorate, the applicants are pretty confident that they will be given retrospective permission to remain there.

Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that one of the ways to deal with the matter is simply not to allow—

Mr Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. There is a Division in the House. I suspend the sitting for 15 minutes.

2.59 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.14 pm

On resuming—

Mr Mike Weir (in the Chair): The debate will now continue until 4.15 pm.

Mark Garnier: I thank my hon. Friend again for giving way.

Mr Hollobone: It has been a long intervention.

Mark Garnier: I think it has been one of the longest interventions in the history of Westminster Hall. My hon. Friend mentioned the planning rules in relation to illegal sites. Does he agree with residents of the village of Churchill in my constituency—an illegal Traveller site has been set up there in the way he has described—that one answer would be to get rid of the rule that allows retrospective planning permission? Planning permission would therefore have to be sought before sites were set up, rather than retrospectively, with all the nonsense about human rights and the rest of it that goes with that.

Mr Hollobone: I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention, and I agree with him. The Government need to be far more proactive in tackling the problem of retrospective planning applications, particularly where it applies to the countryside.

There is another issue, which probably affects Wyre Forest as much as Kettering. Those of us with rural or semi-rural constituencies hear all the time about the protections against development in the green belt, but the open countryside in our constituencies seems to have less protection than the green belt. That is sad and regrettable, and it is enhancing the problem of unauthorised development by Gypsy and Traveller groups.

Before the break, I was talking about the new Greenfields site in Braybrooke, which has 60 plots on 37 acres. If it were developed in full, it would be bigger than the village of Braybrooke, near which it is situated, and the local demographics would be changed even more. The difficulty the local council has lies in enforcing the existing planning regulations.

Let me give Members a brief potted history of the site. The land was first acquired in the 1990s by a business that subdivides fields and then sells small parcels of the land via the internet as what it calls leisure plots, or simply as land investments. Early sales resulted in some plots being fenced off, and physical

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works were undertaken, which were unrelated to agriculture. Caravans were brought on to some plots and used for residential purposes. Wooden buildings were built, and the land was used for keeping horses.

Enforcement notices against such development were issued and served on two specific plots and on the site as a whole. None of the owners appealed the enforcement notices, and those requiring the removal of caravans and associated development are still in force, placing a continuing liability on the landowners. Since the early 1990s, a series of other enforcement notices and stop notices has been served, but the council’s hands are increasingly tied by the guidance on enforcing enforcement notices, which imposes on it the duty to weigh up the likelihood of success, the costs and the proportionality of different courses of action. The end result is that nothing is done.

Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that existing enforcement powers in relation to unauthorised encampments such as the recent one at Happy Valley in Woodingdean in my constituency are totally insufficient, and that temporary or permanent sites can be only part of the solution? We need to be clear that councils need more powers to enforce notices on what are clearly unauthorised encampments.

Mr Hollobone: I am grateful for that helpful intervention. We are beginning to get from the debate some specific courses of action that we would like the Minister to take on board. One would be to deal with the issue of retrospective applications; another would be to beef up the enforcement mechanisms. Unless we have an effective enforcement regime, the problem will grow and become even more of a headache.

We have talked a little about whether there should be a requirement for local authorities to plan for authorised Traveller pitches. If the Government make that a requirement, the proposal is for there to be transitional arrangements whereby local authorities will have six months to put in place a five-year land supply for Traveller sites. My local authority, Kettering borough council, says that six months is not enough and it needs at least 12 months to identify suitable places.

Another thing I want to stress is that, even though consultation is under way, I understand that proposals to change planning policy guidance should be treated as emerging legislation as far as local planning authorities are concerned. Yet there seems to be doubt among some Kettering borough council officials about the weight of the advice. I should like the Minister to state clearly that local authorities should heed the direction of emerging planning guidance from the Government when they make decisions on planning applications.

Finally, please can we do something about the planning inspectorate in Bristol? It is not good enough that it has taken some of the decisions it has, especially on Gypsy and Traveller planning applications. Often, the people concerned do not visit the local authority in question. They do not really know about the local area on which they make decisions. If the coalition Government are serious about devolving decision making down to local residents in the communities where they live, we must take those appeal decisions at a more local level, to ensure that the true voice of local opinion is heard loud and clear.

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3.21 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I shall try to be quick, and will concentrate mostly—directly or indirectly—on enforcement. The Minister can turn to his page on enforcement, so he will be ready.

One thing that I like about the consultation, which has been mentioned already, is the sentence:

“Many people think that current planning policy treats traveller sites more favourably than it does other housing and that it is easier for one group of people to gain planning permission particularly on Green Belt land.”

Hear, hear. In my area, Surrey, 87% of the land is green belt. The situation is difficult for Travellers and Traveller sites, and it is also difficult for the settled community. My constituency has a number of official Gypsy sites. There are few or no problems, and the Gypsies are part of the community. Everything is settled and clear. We have two planning authorities in my constituency, Mole Valley and Guildford. Because we are close to Epsom downs we have trouble, particularly with Gypsies who come in from across a little patch of water, with a distinct accent—not mine; not even similar. They come and squat.

The Travellers tend to use expert legal advice. There are a couple of agencies involving solicitors that are expert in such matters, and they are paid for by Travellers’ groups. They enable the Travellers to become the Artful Dodgers of the planning system. One of the techniques, in some of the better areas of my constituency, is to purchase a patch of land where there is no hope of any form of planning permission for residence. Either Travellers or people pretending to be Travellers make those applications, forcing the locals to panic, club together and purchase the land at an outrageous price. If enforcement were sure, and those local people knew that the inevitable refusal of the application would be followed by enforcement that really happened, those scams would fall apart.

The second technique that I want to mention is squatting, something which the Government are, I understand, looking at. Squatting in rural areas is done by Travellers. They do not squat in buildings, but they bring their buildings with them and squat on the land with caravans and so on. In my area, they also squat on the land with their animals—horses. The difficulty is that at the moment when the bailiffs arrive, after a court order has been obtained, at least one mare, if not every one in the paddock, is about to give birth. A human would be put in an ambulance and whisked off to a maternity ward, but if the bailiffs approach a mare that is about to give birth, the rules apparently require the animal to be left there. Whether a birth happens or not is highly speculative—I am quite sure that it does not. However, what happens is that some of the farmers in my constituency—I know of one in particular—cannot use the land, because it is occupied by a couple of dozen horses.

When, finally, enforcement happens, the mess that is generally left behind is unbelievable. Perhaps the way the site is left could be included in consideration of the matter, so the people pushed off by the enforcement order pay for the removal, clean-up and restoration of the site. That would be helpful and might encourage many of those who cover the site with gravel and other things not to do so.

The third technique is to buy the land, generally with cash, from whatever source. That generally happens at the weekend, when the people arrive with caravans,

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trucks, bulldozers, loads of gravel, piping and so on. By the end of Sunday, they are installed. The electricity and water are tapped in, whether legally or not, and then the nonsense starts—hopeless applications, refusals, appeals and more refusals. To be fair, the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol has been quite good in my area and has backed the local authority, mainly. However, when the enforcement notices are delivered, there is an appeal against the notice. Then, as the Minister is obviously well aware, another, subtly different, application is put in. On and on it continues.

As has been mentioned, the people concerned do not pay council tax or taxes. They use the local system—the schools, health authorities, and so on—and the arguments start. The neighbourhood barneys are horrendous—there are accusations of theft and burglary—but I must be fair; I am sure that in one case, although the people who committed the crime might have been associated with the people on the site, they were not people from the site. Nevertheless, there is, to put it mildly, community disharmony.

I want to outline two cases. The first is in Guildford on the A246. It is a greenfield pasture, which is fenced in. There have been three applications and three refusals, and at least two failed appeals. There are two derelict caravans on the site. As one hon. Member has mentioned, the council are wondering whether it should bother with its enforcement notice, because the cost will be astronomical and it can imagine that, once it gets part of the way there, another application will be made, and it will be back to square one. We need that side of enforcement to be pushed.

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about planning in general, although not particularly about Gypsy encampments; those who want to abuse the planning system often use the ruse of making retrospective applications, then appealing, and then reapplying, exactly as he has described. It is a weakness of the planning system, which is not necessarily the issue before the Chamber.

Sir Paul Beresford: I noticed the nature and the subject of the debate, and have not strayed, although the hon. Gentleman has.

Anyone trying to sell or improve their property finds a big sign on the A246, which is the main road, saying “Romany Stables”. Opportunities to sell property have fallen in number because of that apparent threat. The situation is becoming disgraceful.

The second case involves a Gypsy who does not live in Mole Valley. He lives many miles away and used to—he probably still does—drive a lovely Rolls-Royce. He bought greenfield pasture land in the green belt. He sold it to his wife, who sold it to her cousin, who sold it too, and on it goes. Finally, a small group moved in there in the way in which I have described: gravel, electricity and water were built in over the weekend. There were five caravans, one of which looks like two mobile homes linked together. There was the usual pattern of enforcement notices, appeals and planning applications. The last appeal was quite a clever one. The order was to allow temporary accommodation, while the local authority looked for alternative sites over a period of time.

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My concern is my local authority. I am worried that, having looked—not very well and in a limited area—and weighed up the fact that a sympathy that has no grounds in planning is being generated, the local authority may use a sympathy consideration, not a planning consideration, and allow the application on a greenfield site to go ahead. If someone such as the local farmer had built a house on that site, it would have been bulldozed—even though his children go to the local school and use the local hospital and doctor’s service—but that has not happened in this case because, as insinuated by the first sentence I read out, such groups are perceived to have an opportunity and a right that the rest of us do not. I ask the Minister to have a look before my local authority stubs its toes and gives permission, to the fury of many of us.

3.30 pm

Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing the debate and on an excellent speech. I must confess my utter disappointment that we have to have this debate, the third on Gypsy and Traveller sites in this Parliament: the first was in September, next was the one I secured in December and this one now. What adds to the disappointment is that although during the December debate the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), made it clear that the planning circular was to be reviewed and that the consultation would start early in the new year, we had to wait until April, I think, for the consultation document. Having read through it, I cannot help but voice my deep disappointment at the changes suggested.

In my constituency, since December’s debate on the planning circular and on Gypsy and Traveller sites, another nine pitches have granted in the village of Calf Heath by the Minister. That happened just last week, against the express wishes and desires of local people who do not want those pitches. Why do they not want them? For the simple reason that, in South Staffordshire, more than 40 pitches have been developed in the years since 2007, many of them granted on appeal. It is not a matter of “not in my back yard”. Only the other week, the local planning authority granted planning permission for new Gypsy and Traveller pitches on a site that it believed was appropriate and sensible for such pitches. It is a matter of getting pitches where they are suitable and where there is proven demand—ensuring that they are in the right places. I do not think the Planning Inspectorate gives much consideration to or has much knowledge about where the right places are; nor, I am sorry to say, judging by a decision the Minister made last week, does he seem to have much common sense when looking at this matter or in making the correct decision. Just before this weekend, in the village of Hatherton, we had another invasion on land owned by a Gypsy and Traveller family where hard standings have started to be laid down. Again, it is the taxpayers of South Staffordshire who have to foot the bill to get the enforcement notice to stop the building.

The proposals in the planning circular consultation document are weak-willed and lily-livered and will not deliver on the promises that we made as a party before

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the general election or in the coalition agreement. I remember quite specifically in the coalition agreement a specific promise to protect the green belt. I must take issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), who said that the green belt is far more protected than everywhere else; I wish he were correct, but it certainly is not protected when it comes to Gypsy and Traveller policy. More than 60% of applications from Gypsy and Traveller communities on green belt land that go to appeal are granted, compared with 19% of applications from the settled population. Equality for the settled population is not something that the Department for Communities and Local Government understands.

I ask the Minister to deal with protection of green belt land when he winds up the debate. Looking through the consultation document, the only thing that I noticed that seems to be different in the new circular is the removal of the word “usually” from the old circular’s reference to “usually inappropriate development” on green belt land. I am not sure whether that is seen as a dynamic policy shift in Eland house, but in South Staffordshire it certainly is not. I am slightly concerned that the change in the policy will have no effect for residents and for my constituents. We need to make it clearer that inappropriate development on the green belt should not be allowed. Of those sites in South Staffordshire given planning permission by the Planning Inspectorate, every one has been said by the inspectorate to be inappropriate development in the green belt, but it still awards permission. The balance is not right. The policy proposal does not go far enough, it is not strong enough and it is not clear enough.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering picked up on the important point about the six-month transition period. I think he was voicing the view of Kettering borough council in saying that 12 months is an adequate time; I think that even 12 months is an incredibly tight period, bearing in mind that the provision is for a five-year period. We need to be looking at between 18 months and two years. I hope that the Minister takes those comments on board.

Temporary pitches are a real problem. Increasingly, the Planning Inspectorate awards sites temporary permission. I never thought I would be in the Chamber defending regional spatial strategies but, ironically, we would almost be better off had we maintained them, compared with where we are now with Government fudge. I am shocked to be giving some support to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), but the simple reality is that temporary pitches are not being taken into account as part of the provision for accommodation needs in a local area. That is wrong. Can the Minister give us details of how many temporary applications have been granted for Gypsy and Traveller sites over the past 15 years? I am sure his officials, who are busy working away behind me, can provide details of how many of those temporary pitch grants have then been rescinded, enabling them to be got rid of. I hazard a guess—I do not know this, but I am sure your officials will be able to give you the information before you get to your feet—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): The Chair has not got to his feet.

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Gavin Williamson: I am sure, Mr Weir, when the Minister gets to his feet, he will say that the figure is between zero and five—closer to zero, I imagine.

The simple fact is that when temporary permission is granted, it might as well be permanent permission, because there is no way of getting the sites closed down and cleared off. In his summing up, I hope that the Minister can explain how the Government will deal with that, so that temporary permissions are indeed temporary. I very much look forward to welcoming the Minister to South Staffordshire, to talk to the many people affected by the decisions of the Department and to give the people of South Staffordshire a clear understanding of what the Government are striving to do to improve the position.

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the primary purpose is to bear down on the problem of unauthorised sites. Presumably, however, he accepts that there is substantial unfulfilled need. How does he propose that the Government go about meeting it?

Gavin Williamson: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, although I am curious about how many Gypsy and Traveller pitches there are in St Ives and the extent to which they are a problem. There are many vacant Gypsy and Traveller sites in my constituency of South Staffordshire. What is happening is that some in the Gypsy and Traveller community are using the loophole in the law for personal gain—they are exploiting it. That is costing my taxpayers in South Staffordshire a vast amount of money to pay for enforcement action. There are surplus sites, but unfortunately the good people at the Planning Inspectorate are not able, or do not seem willing to take that into account. What we have is a community exploiting a bad law—a bad planning circular—for personal gain. That is what makes so many people in South Staffordshire so very angry.

Will the Minister ensure that the consultation results in proper protection for the green belt? Will he also ensure that temporary provision is taken into consideration? If he can offer some guidance on how temporary provisions may be removed, that would be greatly pleasing, as would a date when he will visit South Staffordshire. We look forward to welcoming him to the very few green fields that are left after the previous Government’s policy, which remains in place.

3.40 pm

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on this timely debate in the light of the current consultation. I want to raise the concerns of villages to the north of my constituency near the urban fringe around Coventry, and to concentrate on the planning issues. Given what we have heard about the planning system, it is entirely right that the Government should set out to change the system. I echo the concerns expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) about the delays in the Government’s introduction of changes. We spoke about that during the general election campaign and as soon as we came into government. We have raised expectations in communities, but we are failing to realise them. The broad thrust of the Government’s

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action to deal with such issues is the Localism Bill, which aims to give power back to local communities, and to enable them to shape their areas.

Provisions in the Localism Bill will deal with the existing situation when someone develops land without planning consent. The system is that they are encouraged to apply for retrospective planning consent with a right of appeal against the enforcement notice. The intention in our policy document was that both issues would be dealt with. The purpose of the changes we are introducing is to address the issues of local communities. My communities have raised three reservations, and there are three more that I would like the Minister to respond to.

First, I echo the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering and for South Staffordshire about the transitional time scale. There is a group in my constituency called BRAID—Barnacle residents against inappropriate development. As at Braybrooke in Kettering, illegal development in Barnacle threatens to overwhelm the village and the host community. I support BRAID’s contention that the imposition of a six-month time scale for councils to put in place a five-year deliverable supply of sites for Travellers is simply too short. BRAID argues that many authorities will not have time to carry out an assessment of needs, and will find themselves having to treat such applications favourably—I will return to that expression—before finalising their five-year plan. Whenever there is a time limit, there may be discussion about it, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire referred to a year. My community would like a realistic period of two years for local councils to carry out that task.

The second issue is the presumption to “treat favourably”. The draft policy document states:

“Where a local authority does not have a 5 year deliverable supply of gypsy and traveller places (within 6 months of the publication of the new policy), a local planning authority should treat favourably any applications for temporary permission”.

Clearly, that provision is intended to encourage local authorities to identify appropriate sites, but communities fear that the phrase, “treat favourably” is likely to reinforce views that there will be special rights for certain communities in planning matters, in a similar way that circular 01/2006 states that “substantial weight” should be given to unmet need when considering temporary permission. There is a real fear that the policy may unintentionally encourage unauthorised developments when a developer knows that they are likely to be “treated favourably” because a council has not yet set out its policy.

A third matter, to which my colleagues have referred, is the behaviour of planning inspectors. Rugby borough council in my constituency has for many years had to consider a variety of applications for new sites, and in 2009 it approved its draft core strategy, which included a requirement that future developments should be limited to a maximum of 15 pitches per main rural settlement or parish area. That decision by locally elected councillors was due to the fact that two areas already have substantial Traveller provision.

When that strategy was submitted to the Secretary of State earlier this year, the planning inspector decided to strike out the requirement for a maximum number of pitches, citing as justification the guidance in circular 01/2006. Local representatives are frustrated that that justification is based on five-year-old guidance, when it

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is now more than a year since the Government came to power with a pledge to change the system, and that when the consultation is concluded and the law is introduced it may no longer be in existence.

I raised these matters with the Minister, and he confirmed the existence of the circular. Perhaps he will respond to some of the points to which he referred in his letter to me. I recognise that there is a real opportunity now to change the system to achieve a fair balance for both local communities and the Travelling community.

3.46 pm

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I have just lost my bet. Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Weir.

I shall be as brief as possible, because I know that a colleague wants to speak. My constituency has a long history with the Travelling community, not least because of our historic horse fairs. We have attracted Travellers for many centuries, and some of my ancestors who were horse dealers in the area may have had interactions going back centuries. That does not mean that we do not have problems today. My local council seems to be distinctly unimpressed with some of the Government proposals in the consultation, not least because local communities believe that the planning system has been weighted too much in favour of the Travelling community in recent times. We are not convinced that the consultation will push that back in the other direction.

In particular, my council is worried about the targets, which include, as I said when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), historic demand. The local authority and local residents do not believe that those targets take adequate account of local knowledge, and we are worried that they will lead to attracting more people with no links to the area simply because of historic demand.

Brigg in particular has had a problem in recent years with illegal encampment. One in West Lindsey in Lincolnshire, which is just outside the local authority area, has managed to acquire planning permission in exactly the way that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) highlighted. Planning permission has been granted for green belt land at the end of a country lane through what I believe is an abuse of the planning system.

That does not mean that we in Brigg do not enjoy good community relations between the settled population and the Travelling community. I am always temperate in my language, because I want to ensure that we continue to maintain those good relations, and that our historic link does not boil over. But the risk of continuing the reality that the planning system works in favour of people in the Gypsy and Traveller community must be addressed, and that means that any assessment of Traveller site needs and demands should include the views of the settled community.

I could say a lot more, but my hon. Friends have said a great deal and I am aware that other hon. Friends want to speak. North Lincolnshire council will respond to the consultation, and it seems that it is distinctly unimpressed by what is being offered. I urge the Minister

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to look at what we promised during the general election. I want to return to both sides of my communities and tell them that this is about fairness on both sides of the debate.

3.49 pm

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): I shall be brief. Given that we are talking about a devolved issue, the Minister may be forgiven for wondering why somebody who represents a Welsh constituency is taking part in the debate. However, perhaps I can share some experiences of a policy that is a little more advanced. Pembrokeshire has the highest concentration of Gypsy sites anywhere in Wales. Almost without exception, they are well integrated into the local community, and they provide value and valuable jobs. Gypsies are part of the community and welcomed by it. With the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), I have been concerned by the general presumption during the debate that all Gypsies are bad. That is definitely not the case where I come from; we have a long, happy history and relationship with Gypsies.

During the planning process, I hope that the Minister will guard against people contributing to the debate with ongoing prejudice and discriminating against a minority community. Such discrimination leads to all sorts of social difficulties such as kids being bullied at school, people not getting jobs for which they are perfectly qualified, and friends being thrown out of pubs simply because they happen to live on a legitimate Traveller site. I hope the Minister will confirm that such pitfalls will be avoided when the measures for England are set out.

There are, of course, some planning anomalies and difficulties in Wales. There is an ongoing case at Clayford lane near Saundersfoot, and there are some difficulties concerning the definition of a Traveller, what constitutes a Traveller in a legal sense, whether an application for a site has to be in the name of a Traveller, and whether those who may subsequently occupy the site would meet Traveller criteria. That case has resulted in considerable anger on the part of the 60 or more residents in the area. They feel that it is somewhat harder for them to jump through the planning hoops as part of the non-Traveller community than as part of the Traveller community, even though that community includes people who may not even legitimately be part of it. There is no doubt that by making special provision for the Traveller community—albeit for all the right reasons—we have almost by accident created a situation in which we are causing resentment towards a community rather than respect for it, which is the opposite of what we intended. I hope that the Minister will take that into account during the consultation in England.

In short, a balance must be struck between the non-Traveller ratepayer, the legitimate Traveller community that brings—certainly in my constituency—so much value, and the ever-present and often misused and misquoted Human Rights Act that makes up part of the overall mix. Unless we get the balance right, it will not only be bad for the ratepayer, but it will be bad for local authorities that have to deal with the situation. Above all, my main word of caution in the social context is that that will be bad for minority communities which, as we stated in our election manifesto, we seek to respect and welcome where possible.

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3.52 pm

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing the debate. Debates about the Travelling community often tend to generate more heat than light, but today we have heard some useful contributions. I did not agree with everything that hon. Members said, but we heard some helpful pointers to a way forward. Anxiety about the issue clearly exists in a number of communities—that is stating the obvious—and it is incumbent on Members to represent the views and concerns of their constituents. I would like to make it clear, however, that the Opposition Communities and Local Government Front-Bench team believe that the law should apply equally to all sections of our community. There should be no special favours for any community, whether the Travelling or the settled community.

With all due respect to the hon. Member for Witham, her criticism of the previous Administration was a little unfair. They did not get everything right, and some criticisms are legitimate, but a good deal of work was undertaken under the previous Labour Government and a considerable number of additional sites were created. The introduction of temporary stop notices made a useful contribution to the whole issue of dealing with the Travelling community. The hon. Lady’s faith in the Localism Bill could be misplaced because it might not secure the outcomes to which she alluded.

Andrew Percy: The hon. Gentleman reminds me of a point about fairness that I missed out during my contribution but would like to put on record. He talks about fairness, but I can give one example of where the system is not working. We have had an application relating to the village green in Brigg for a considerable period of time. A Traveller family has now moved on to that site and we are unable to progress that application properly because the human rights legislation and planning circulars introduced by the previous Government have prevented us from moving that family on. Where is the balance and fairness to both parts of the community?

Chris Williamson: The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point and gives an example from his constituency. The Government clearly need to look at such situations and find a way forward. Such things no doubt cause considerable anger in the hon. Gentleman’s community, so he is right to put that on record.

I will return to the point that the hon. Member for Witham made about the Localism Bill because I am not convinced that it will secure the outcomes for which she hopes. The proposition is that there will be no regional targets, and it is expected that each local authority throughout the country will determine what is appropriate for its area. Given today’s discussion, there is a recognition among most—if not all—hon. Members that one of the biggest problems relating to Travellers arises due to inadequate numbers of legitimate official sites. If we were able to provide those additional sites, the problems of unauthorised encampments would be somewhat diminished.

If we put the onus to provide Traveller sites on to individual local authorities, they may take the view that there is no need for such a site in their area. We have already had that problem, and I fear that such situations

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may be exacerbated by the changes brought in by the Localism Bill. Paradoxically, the Bill could lead to an increase in the unauthorised encampments about which the hon. Lady is so concerned.

Priti Patel: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, under the Localism Bill, giving local residents opportunities and empowering them to make their views heard will be paramount when it comes to taking such decisions? Surely that would end the lack of balance in a system in which the views of local residents are not heard and a disproportionate voice is given to the Travelling community.

Chris Williamson: I am not sure that the Travelling community is given a disproportionate voice. Hon. Members have outlined examples of abuses and cases in which sections of that community may have exploited loopholes in human rights legislation. I repeat that we all want to ensure that there is adequate provision for the Travelling community, and fairness for the settled and Travelling communities, and we will achieve that only through a significant increase in numbers of legitimate sites. My fear and worry is that localism legislation may make that more difficult to achieve.

The hon. Lady also mentioned workshops for Travellers and suggested—rather tongue in cheek, I suspect—that there should be workshops on planning laws for the settled community. That is perhaps a bit unfair. We are talking about a minority community that has real difficulties, and the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) pointed to issues such as mortality rates and educational outcomes. It is appropriate and helpful to work with that community and to outline not only its rights, but its responsibilities under planning legislation. That was a positive step by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Andrew George: On the subject of Government proposals, what is particularly encouraging is the proposal that they will provide £50,000 to support training for councillors in how the relevant legislation works and how to ensure that the problems that have been raised today can be settled within local communities.

Chris Williamson: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made that intervention because it was one of the points that I intended to touch on if there was time. There are indeed some helpful proposals in the consultation document, and that one is useful. It is important that councillors are given appropriate training and the wherewithal to deal with what is often a thorny and difficult issue when they are on the front line dealing with these complex problems.

I agreed with the point made by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) about rights and responsibilities but, again, the antidote would be more authorised sites—I keep returning to that point. He was probably being slightly tongue in cheek when he suggested that there was a comparison between homeless people building unauthorised settlements in the countryside and the way in which Travelling communities establish unauthorised encampments. Clearly, that is a silly point, if I may put it that way to him, because where would a homeless family or a homeless individual be able to get the necessary building materials and the wherewithal to

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construct a house without planning permission in the countryside? That false comparison does not help to take the argument forward.

The hon. Gentleman also commented about dealing with retrospective planning permission. I think that he is suggesting that the Government should consider eliminating the ability for planning authorities to grant retrospective planning approval. Although that might deal with the problem that we are discussing today, if it ever came to pass, it might involve unforeseen, unintended consequences that could be very detrimental to his constituents in the fullness of time.

Gavin Williamson: I am listening intently to what the hon. Gentleman is saying and trying to understand the position of Opposition Front Benchers. Do they support the old circular? Do they support the proposed new circular? Do they think that it should be tougher or stronger? I would be interested to hear his views about that.

Chris Williamson: We are very clear that there is a need for some improvement in the present situation, which does create difficulties. As I pointed out, the previous Administration took significant steps forward. However, we welcome the consultation exercise in which the present Government are engaged and we will fully co-operate with them when that has concluded. I do not want to state firmly that our position is one thing or another at this stage, because we need to wait for the outcome of the consultation. It would be wrong to prejudge what the outcome will be. It might be that helpful improvements could be made, but I do not want to say that we must stick steadfastly with the existing arrangement, or that we should do x, y or z, until we know the outcome of the consultation.

I probably do not have time to deal with all the other points that were made, but I shall touch on a few. The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) referred to the need for stronger enforcement. Yes, of course there should be enforcement, but until we deal with the root cause of why unauthorised encampments are established in the first place, there will probably always be a need to undertake enforcement, however strong it is. There will always be unlawful encampments unless there is an adequate provision of legitimate, authorised encampments for the Travelling community.

Sir Paul Beresford: I pointed out earlier that the settled community also occasionally tries to do exactly what has been described, and the enforcement goes through quickly and the buildings are knocked down. However, the deviousness with which the planning system is manipulated by the Travelling community in relation to some of the sites in my constituency, where there is a considerable demand from both that community and the settled community, means that it persists beyond what is acceptable.

Chris Williamson: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point to which the consultation exercise and the Government will need to respond.

I am delighted by the damascene conversion of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on the importance of the regional spatial strategies, so I hope that the Government will recognise that.

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I concurred with the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), who made the very helpful comment that not all Travellers are bad. There is sometimes a dangerous tendency for people to misinterpret these debates and to caricature hon. Members as suggesting that everyone in the Travelling community is a rogue and a bad person—clearly that is not the case. I was delighted that the hon. Gentleman made that comment from the other side of the Chamber.

I conclude by reiterating that we await with interest the outcome of the consultation exercise. We will co-operate fully with the Government when the relevant documentation has been published.

4.6 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Weir. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing the debate and thank all hon. Members who participated. Every one made legitimate and significant points, because these are areas of real concern. I thank the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) for the Opposition’s offer of co-operation once the consultation has concluded.

It is important to put the issue in context and say that we are in the process of consulting. I therefore hope that my hon. Friends will understand if I am at pains to ensure that the Government do not at this stage prejudge the consultation. We are consulting because we recognise that there is a problem. I appreciate, from the observations of a number of hon. Members today, that there is a sense of frustration, but I hope that they, too, will accept that, inevitably, the process of legislation cannot be gone through overnight. Some of the measures that the Government are taking to tackle this issue require primary legislation, which is currently in the other place. In addition, it is necessary to consult before we make changes to policy by way of guidance or regulation.

The Government think that it is more important to ensure that we get this right than attempt to rush it. In the past, things have gone wrong. We do not want a situation like the one that sadly we saw occur under the previous Government, in which the number of caravans on unauthorised developments increased from 887 in 1997 to 2,395 in 2010. No doubt the policies then were well-intentioned, but they were not thought through. We are determined to think this through, get it right and make it stick.

Gavin Williamson: I commend the Minister’s keenness to ensure that everything is run professionally and well in his Department, but I am curious about why the consultation period has been extended. Twelve weeks is the usual consultation period. Why did the Department feel the need to extend that?

Robert Neill: The Department took the view—this is not a unique case—that sometimes it is better to be a little more generous and sensible in consultation than to rush at fences. I am sure that by the time my hon. Friend has been in the House for as long as my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), he will understand that, sometimes, taking things at a gentle pace gets a better end result. We want this to work, and the reason why we want it to work was encapsulated in

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the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart). It is essential that we have a system that is both fair and workable in the interests of the settled community and of the Traveller community, because it is right to say that the vast majority of Travellers are law-abiding. The majority of Travellers want to live on authorised sites and have social issues that need to be addressed, so it is as much in their interests as anyone else’s that we get something that is fair.

There is a very strong feeling that there is unfairness in the current system, which has caused the Government to take a number of steps to deal with the problem, all of which have been legitimately highlighted by my hon. Friends. Let me make clear what the Government seek to do. I know that time will not permit me to deal with every one of the legitimate points raised by my hon. Friends, but I undertake to write to them setting out some of the specific details for which they have asked.

I start with what the Government are doing, given the background. There is a real problem. There is a genuine sense in the country that the system is not fair and that it works against everyone’s interests. What are the Government seeking to do? First, we are committed to abolishing the regional strategies under the Localism Bill, which clearly requires primary legislation. It is frustrating for many that it should be necessary to take decisions in accordance with existing policies until they are revoked, but that is the law. When dealing with planning casework, Ministers have to act in a quasi-judicial fashion, but we are taking steps to abolish the regional strategies and the targets that go with them.

The Localism Bill also contains the primary legislation necessary to provide stronger enforcement powers to tackle unauthorised development. The Bill also contains important proposals to limit the opportunities for the abuse of retrospective planning permission. My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley and others have referred to that important point. We are determined to ensure that retrospective permission is available if there has been a genuine mistake but not in cases of cynical manipulation, in which members of any community may be involved—I have come across cynical developers, too. We are taking steps to deal with that.

Simon Kirby rose

Andrew Percy rose

Robert Neill: I shall give way once more, but my hon. Friends will appreciate that I need to make progress in fairness to other Members.

Simon Kirby: Does the Minister recommend that the consultation on legislation to deal with squatting should also cover unauthorised encampments? It seems to me that the two are closely linked.

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Robert Neill: I hope that all who feel strongly on planning and on squatting will take part in the consultation. Indeed, I hope that all who have spoken in this debate, as well as getting their contributions on the record, will take the opportunity within the extended period of consultation to write on behalf of themselves and of their constituents. The Government take the matter seriously.

We have taken measures to ensure that supply problems are sensibly addressed. We have secured £60 million to help councils and other registered providers build new Traveller sites. The new homes bonus will apply to new Traveller sites to incentivise local authorities. We are applying the Mobile Homes Act 1983 to authorised Traveller sites to give Travellers who play by the rules a better sense of security. At the same time, we seek to deal with areas of abuse. We also want to deal with the fact that, at present, it is possible both to seek retrospective planning permission and to appeal against an enforcement notice. By manipulating the two processes, it is possible to extend the time for compliance almost indefinitely. The Localism Bill will remove that option and close that loophole. We are also considering strengthening enforcement powers.

The hon. Member for Derby North referred to the temporary stop notices introduced by the previous Government. They were a step in the right direction, but I know that concerns have been expressed about how effective they are in practice. We need to consider how they operate. It is critical that local planning authorities have implemented proper plans to deal with the needs of their areas. We are giving them the ability to assess what that need is. Hon. Members have spoken about the tests that should be applied, which is precisely what the consultation is for. We want to hear people’s views on the appropriateness of one test or another, and I hope that Members will feed their views into the consultation.

It is a protection for local authorities to have an up-to-date plan in relation to all planning matters, including the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites. Our approach, which involves an assessment of need and of supply over a reasonable period of years, will treat Gypsy and Traveller needs in a way that is much more closely aligned to that for housing generally. That greater symmetry of approach is part of our attempt to secure greater fairness for both sides. A number of steps have already been taken.

I appreciate the useful points that have been made by hon. Members, and I shall write in detail on the constituency points that they raised. I also encourage them to participate in the consultation. Once the consultation is closed, the Government will want carefully to consider the points that have been raised on this significant matter. It is therefore our intention to put in place a replacement circular, if we conclude that that is the best way forward, although one option proposed in the consultation is not to replace it. Once we have come to a conclusion, we intend to move swiftly.

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Missing Persons (Cyprus)

4.15 pm

Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): This is the first time that I have spoken under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, and I look forward to this afternoon’s debate.

I start by saying what the debate is not about. It is not about the politics of the continued division of Cyprus, nor is it about the rights and wrongs of Turkish troops continuing to occupy part of a European Union member state. It is about the humanitarian issue of families seeking closure on the fate of missing relatives.

It is 37 years, almost to the day, since Turkey invaded Cyprus. Cypriots, both Turkish and Greek, were involved in the fighting. Many were captured and never seen again. Even today, about 1,500 people are still unaccounted for. Young army conscripts of the Cypriot national guard, reservists and civilians, including women and children, are among their number.

Families have a right to know what happened, whether their relatives are dead and, if so, where their graves are to be found. If those people are dead, why cannot the location of their remains be disclosed and their remains returned? What about those imprisoned in Turkey? Could they still be alive after 37 years and still be in prison? If those who were imprisoned in Turkey are dead, where are they buried?

What about the missing children, such as Christaki Georghiou, the brother of Mrs Hatjoullis, a constituent of mine? He was last seen alive at the age of five in 1974 being taken away by a doctor at a hospital controlled by the Turkish army, but the press recently reported that he is still alive. Do the families not have a right to know? How many other children might have been placed with Turkish families and still be alive in mainland Turkey?

The tragedy of missing persons is a humanitarian problem with implications for human rights and international humanitarian law. The Cypriot Government comply with efforts to identify the missing on both sides, and it is time that Turkey followed suit. The organisations involved in locating and identifying the missing should have full access to the archives of all organisations, both civilian and military. To date, Turkey has refused to allow the International Commission on Missing Persons access to military bases. That is despite the commission operating under careful supervision under the auspices of the United Nations.

The right of family members to know the fate of their missing relatives, including their whereabouts and the circumstances and causes of their disappearance, is a humanitarian matter. The obligation to carry out an effective investigation into the circumstances surrounding a disappearance is required by international human rights law and international humanitarian law. When focusing on the humanitarian dimension of missing persons in armed conflicts, it is necessary to bear in mind that cases of missing persons can sometimes constitute criminal offences, including war crimes or crimes against humanity. Perhaps that is why Turkey is dragging its feet.

States should ensure the effective investigation and prosecution of all human rights violations linked to missing persons. Turkey continues to flout international

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law. I know that Turkey claims that the Republic of Cyprus is not co-operating, but I do not believe that to be true. Turkey has repeatedly been found in breach of articles 2, 3 and 5 of the European convention on human rights.

In the case of Cyprus v. Turkey 10 May 2001, the European Court of Human Rights examined Turkey’s obligation to protect the right to life under article 2 of the convention, reading it in conjunction with the state’s general duty under article 1 to

“secure to everyone within its jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in the conventions.”

The court confirmed that

“this requires by implication that there should be some form of effective official investigation when individuals have been killed as a result of the use of force by agents of the State”.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this extremely important debate. Will he confirm beyond any shadow of doubt that the campaign for missing persons covers both Turkish and Greek Cypriots and that it is not one or the other?

Mike Freer: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The Committee on Missing Persons, which the EU generously funds—that is why its effectiveness should be a matter of grave concern for our Foreign Office—investigates the cases of both Turkish and Greek Cypriots who are missing. It makes no distinction between the two, and it is important to put that on record.

Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. This issue affects families right across the island. Does he not think that with the right level of commitment and a speedy resolution, massive confidence-building measures could be delivered for the future?

Mike Freer: My hon. Friend makes a good point. This is not specifically about the politics of the negotiations over the reunification of Cyprus. Both sides in that negotiation are looking to build confidence. There could be no better confidence-building measure than the return of the remains of the 1,500 missing people or information on what happened to them.

Sir Alan Meale (Mansfield) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on acquiring this debate. He has shown by his knowledge of the Cypriot problem and by his advocacy on this matter, which is heard in the House time and time again, how good a representative he is for the area. I have known about the case of the Georgiou boy for many years. As the hon. Gentleman has said, he is just one of many people who are missing, more than 500 of whom are the relatives of British citizens. Will he comment on how difficult it seems to be for the President of Cyprus to obtain regular meetings in the UK with the British Government? For the life of me, I cannot understand why that should be so difficult, particularly because we are a guarantor power and have bases there and because more than 70,000 British citizens live on the island.

Mike Freer: The hon. Gentleman has made an extremely strong point. It is disappointing that the Foreign Office, in seeking to be even-handed, has forgotten that on this particular issue we cannot be even-handed. We wish to see equal treatment, but we have a duty to British

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citizens and the descendants of British citizens lost in the conflict. Indeed, the issue also affects hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Chris Kelly), who has apologised for not being able to attend today’s debate, wanted to speak, because his mother lost four cousins in the conflict. I urge the Minister to take the cross-party views very seriously and try to apply further pressure to resolve this matter.

4.23 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.37 pm

On resuming—

Mike Freer: I was talking about the decision in the European Court of Human Rights case of Cyprus against Turkey of 10 May 2001. In fact, the Court’s judgment stated:

“The Court cannot but note that the authorities of the respondent State”—

that is, Turkey—

“have never undertaken any investigation into the claims made by the relatives of the missing persons that the latter had disappeared after being detained in circumstances in which there was real cause to fear for their welfare.”

Sir Alan Meale: Bearing that in mind and the fact that Cyprus has the presidency of the Council of Ministers, would it not be appropriate to ask the Minister if he would ask—in his good time—for this issue to be pushed back on to the agenda of the Council of Ministers, to give it more force than it has had in recent times?

Mike Freer: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I am sure the Minister heard his intervention and will seek to address that point in his remarks.

I want to return to the role—or lack of—of the Turkish forces. The ECHR judgment continued:

“No attempt was made to identify the names of the persons who were reportedly released from Turkish custody into the hands of Turkish-Cypriot paramilitaries or to inquire into the whereabouts of the places where the bodies were disposed of. It does not appear either that any official inquiry was made into the claim that Greek-Cypriot prisoners were transferred to Turkey.”

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Like others, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing such an important and emotive debate. He mentioned Cypriot prisoners in Turkish prisons. Has he any idea what percentage of the 1,500 could still be in prison in Turkey?

Mike Freer: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the numbers. There is no definitive answer, because the Turkish will not release that information. It is estimated that between 500 and 800 people were imprisoned in Turkey. The whereabouts and fate of those people remain unknown.

We talked about the Court’s determination of article 1. The Court also concluded that there had been a

“continuing violation of article 2, on account of the failure of the authorities of the respondent state to conduct an effective investigation aimed at clarifying the whereabouts and fate of Greek-Cypriot missing persons who disappeared in life-threatening circumstances.”

I appreciate that hon. Members may think that the use of words in some of these articles—2 and 3; and 5, which I will talk about—constitutes shades of grey. However, it is important in establishing a pattern of behaviour that unfortunately, Turkey is repeatedly failing to comply with those various articles.

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In dealing with article 2, the Court stressed at the outset that

“the unacknowledged detention of an individual is a complete negation of the guarantees of liberty and security of the person, that is contained in article 5 of the convention and [is] a most grave violation of that article. Having assumed control over a given individual, it is incumbent on the authorities to account for his or her whereabouts. It is for this reason that article 5 must be seen as requiring the authorities to take effective measures to safeguard against the risk of disappearance and to conduct a prompt and effective investigation into any arguable claim that a person has been taken into custody and not seen since.”

The Court referred to the irrefutable evidence that Greek Cypriots were held by Turkish or Turkish Cypriot forces without keeping appropriate records. From any humanitarian point of view, that failing cannot be excused. Confusion during a conflict is not an excuse. Fighting during a conflict is not an excuse. The absence of information and the deafening silence from Turkey have made it impossible to allay the concerns of the relatives of the missing persons about their fate. There has been no official reaction to new evidence that Greek Cypriot missing persons were taken into Turkish custody. The Court concluded that there has been a continuing violation of article 5, because Turkey has continued to fail to respond or to conduct an effective investigation.

The lack of an investigation by Turkey into the fate of those who went missing has condemned relatives to live in a prolonged state of acute anxiety. Time has not lessened that anxiety, as anyone who has met the relatives can testify. I have many times been to the green line in Cyprus and met relatives, and I can testify to the daily heartbreak that the mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters still endure. No one who has visited and walked up to the buffer zone and met the families, with the pictures around their necks, can fail to be moved by the anxiety and stress the relatives continue to endure. The memories remain vivid in the minds of the relatives, and they endure the agony of not knowing whether family members were killed in the conflict or are still in detention, or, if detained, have since died. The families just want to know what has happened; they want to be able to grieve and to lay their relatives to rest.

The provision of such information is the responsibility of the authorities of the respondent state, and that is Turkey. It has been found to be consistently unco-operative. The silence of Turkish authorities has been classified as inhuman treatment within the meaning of article 3. The Court of Human Rights found no indication that the Committee on Missing Persons is going beyond its limited terms of reference. That committee works under very careful supervision.

It is important to stress that the search for information by the relatives of Greek Cypriot missing persons is not partisan. In fact, the Secretary-General of the United Nations said:

“Determining the fate of missing persons occupies an increasingly prominent role in peace-making...and post conflict peace-building. Handled properly, it can build trust and promote reconciliation…The Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus has been a model of successful co-operation between the Greek-Cypriot and the Turkish-Cypriot communities.”

This humanitarian issue must be resolved and, although the resolution should not be mired in the political solution, there is inevitably some linkage. If we are to see a re-united Cyprus, both Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots have to have trust and faith in each

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other. If Turkey is to take its place in the EU, it must be seen to be open, transparent and democratic. A transparent return and identification of the missing would be a welcome confidence-building measure. The UK and the EU have significant influence. We contribute handsomely to the work of the Committee on Missing Persons, but Cypriots are EU citizens, and as such, member states have a duty to intervene. We intervene and apply pressure throughout the world; we must do more on our own European doorstep.

Mr Weir, thank you for giving me the opportunity to raise the concerns of many of my constituents. My constituency has a very large Greek Cypriot community, and it has been my privilege to raise its concerns today.

4.46 pm

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Along with colleagues, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) on securing what I believe is the first specific debate on missing persons. I welcome that important focus. I am sure the Minister has noted the cross-party involvement in the issue, which is of fundamental importance to all Cypriots, British citizens, parliamentarians and all concerned about basic human rights.

I speak as the chair of the British-Cyprus all-party parliamentary group, which will continue to scrutinise the role of the Government in ensuring progress on the issue. Yesterday, the Organisation of Relatives of Missing Cypriots conducted a lobby outside Parliament. It is a lobby with a difference: it is campaigning not on a one-off issue, but on a matter that has been of concern for 37 years or more. These relatives come year in, year out. They remind us that this issue, which we talk about in terms of human rights, is based in humanity. They hang around their necks pictures of loved ones, some of whom we have heard about today. It is important to realise that we are talking about individuals and loved ones who have been lost for many years.

The attention of Cypriots is rightly focused today on those who were lost in the tragic incident at the naval base in Cyprus, when 12 lives were lost and 62 people injured. We take this opportunity to express our condolences and heartfelt concern. The loss of those loved ones this week is just the same as that of those lost all those years ago. It is still as acute for those who lobbied yesterday outside Parliament. We do not want them to be here next year; we do not want them to say that they still do not know where their loved ones are. We want to ensure we have made progress by this time next year, and that they are no longer in agony.

We would all endorse the robust case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green. Those relatives, who are citizens of this country, feel they are ignored. They feel that these basic issues are not taken as seriously as they should be. They do not want to be tolerated with a “see you next year”. They want to ensure that we and the Government are doing what we can in a number of ways. The contribution through the European Union to the CMP is welcome, as is the important bi-communal work that will now make more rapid progress and receive more funding.

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As can be heard from across the community, the basic issue is that the CMP is not being given access and information. The state that must be held to account is Turkey. Turkish military bases know the whereabouts of missing individuals. We implore the Government to do all they can in their negotiations and contact with the Turkish Government to ensure proper access and the basic answers that the relatives wish to have. That can be ensured in various ways. This country holds the presidency of the Council of Ministers. That is an important opportunity to hold a debate on missing persons. I invite the Government to consider how it can be done.

It is plain that this basic issue of human rights must be dealt with before progress can be made on European accession. The questions of information and access must be answered. It is also an international obligation. The Minister is responsible for international human rights issues; no doubt he is concerned about such flagrant breaches of human rights, which remain unanswered since May 2001. They must be answered. This is happening on European soil. We would not tolerate a divided island with troops from Turkey on it, and we must not tolerate this, nor park the issue while awaiting the outcome of the negotiations. It is an issue of not only European rights but basic human rights.

The relatives of missing Cypriots were campaigning outside yesterday. We do not want to go back to them next year and say that progress has not been made. Yes, it is the province of Turkey, but our Government must also do all they can to ensure basic justice, truth and reconciliation for the relatives of missing Cypriots.

4.51 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Jeremy Browne): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I thank and commend the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) for initiating this important debate and giving Members from all parties, as has rightly been said, the opportunity to contribute. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) for his contribution. Before I start, I ought to mention the terrible explosion of which he rightly reminded us, which happened in the early hours of Monday morning in Cyprus. We now know that it has led to the loss of 12 lives and to numerous injuries, as well as having a major impact on Cyprus’s infrastructure. The sovereign base areas have offered their assistance to the Government in the form of firefighters, ambulances, helicopters and any other help that might be required. Explosives experts from the bases have visited the site of the explosion, and a large number of SBA personnel have donated blood to the local hospital. I am sure that everybody wishes to send the House’s sympathies to all those involved and to their families.

The issue of the missing people of Cyprus is another tragic subject, and one that continues to affect Cypriots from both communities. Many families still do not know the fate of their loved ones, nor have they been able to bury them. We understand that it is an important and sensitive issue for all Cypriots and recognise that it needs to be resolved. Therefore, the work of the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus is of great significance. Since its establishment in April 1981, it has been one of the only institutionalised, bi-communal committees in

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Cyprus. The work of the 64 Greek and Turkish Cypriot scientists involved in excavations and anthropological analysis is a shining example of co-operation between the two communities on the island. The committee is all the more remarkable, given the sensitivity of the work that it carries out. Its mandate remains to investigate cases of persons reported missing in inter-communal fighting and the events of July 1974 and afterwards. Once remains have been identified, they are handed over to the family, in an emotional moment that requires and receives sensitive and respectful handling.

The committee does not attempt to establish the cause of death or attribute responsibility for the death of missing persons. I appreciate that that limitation has been criticised, but the committee relies on information to carry out its work, and much of that information is provided by members of the public who might not come forward if there were a threat of a criminal investigation. There are legitimate differences of opinion on the matter, but current practices might be the most likely to reach the desirable objective of bringing the situation to a resolution.

The UK fully supports and welcomes the excellent work of the Committee on Missing Persons. Although the UK has no control over its work, I hope the committee will conclude its work only after the cases of all the missing on both sides have been investigated fully. To achieve that, the CMP must be granted access to all areas where it needs to excavate. I urge all those in control of such areas, including the Turkish military, to co-operate fully with the committee and allow it to complete its vital work. Similarly, I encourage anyone with information that might be of use to pass it on to the committee.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe visited the committee’s laboratory during his recent trip to Cyprus and was impressed by the progress being made. He met the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot employees and members of the committee, and it was clear that they work together with confidence. He also discussed the committee’s work with the Elders earlier this year just after their visit to Cyprus in February. To date, there have been 797 exhumations, and 286 remains have been identified. Of those 286, 226 were Greek Cypriots and 60 Turkish Cypriots. However, there is still much work to be done before all the families affected finally have a chance to close, in some manner, this tragic chapter in their lives and that of their island.

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Jim Sheridan: In the few moments left, will the Minister tell us whether he will make direct representations to the Turkish authorities on behalf of the missing persons?

Mr Browne: I have heard the point the hon. Gentleman has made, and I will undertake to see what representations we can make to further the objectives I have just outlined. It is the position of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Government as a whole that we wish to bring the process to a conclusion that will be satisfactory to the families involved.

Sir Alan Meale: Perhaps I can help the Minister slightly. He said a few moments ago that he would call on the Turkish authorities in the north of Cyprus and on the Turkish military to give access to all sites that might contain the remains of people who were killed. Perhaps one way is for the Foreign Office to approach the Turkish Government regarding allowing the CMP to access sites on the Turkish mainland, rather than on the island. That might be a way to express our view that the matter should be cleared up.

Mr Browne: I am grateful for the intervention. I underline again the point that the British Government wish this unhappy period of history to be resolved to the satisfaction of the families involved. In our view, barriers to that resolution ought to be removed. Where there are obstacles to exhumations and proper investigations, we wish to see progress made.

As a sign of our support, the UK has made four donations to the committee in the last seven years, totalling more than £100,000. The United Kingdom also donates to the committee’s annual budget through the European Union and recognises that contribution as both important and necessary. The UK will continue to support the work of the committee. It is an excellent example of bi-communal co-operation on the island, as Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots work side by side in the laboratory and on the sites being excavated.

I express again my gratitude to everybody who has contributed to this debate and make an open offer. If Members wish to raise concerns about the issue, the Minister for Europe, who leads on the subject in the Foreign Office, will be more than happy to receive those representations as the British Government try to play our part in bringing the matter to a satisfactory conclusion.

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Worklessness (Wales)

5 pm

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): I am pleased to have secured a debate on a pressing issue at an opportune time. Unemployment in Wales, particularly unemployment among young people, is worrying. The valleys, for example, have the highest benefit claimant count not only in Wales, but in the United Kingdom. The report, “Tackling Worklessness in Wales”, by Sheffield Hallam university, is therefore timely, and I commend it to hon. Members. It is makes for interesting reading, and it is condensed in both the introduction and the conclusion for easy reading—for some hon. Members.

Unemployment is only one side of the coin, as the titles of the debate and of the report indicate. Unemployment is in some ways merely a consequence of the lack of a job. That sounds self-evident, of course, but I sometimes get the feeling that some commentators—not all, by any means, on the Government side—see unemployment only as an aspect of a personal failing. Reading the tabloid press, it is sometimes portrayed as an aspect of personal wickedness, but obviously people cannot work if the jobs are not there or if their personal circumstances make it difficult or impossible for them to set up on their own. I left a secure job at a university to set up on my own six years before I was elected as an MP and fell in with a bad lot here. Six years of self-employment taught me a great deal.

There are two themes to my contribution: first, I will discuss the dire unemployment and economic activity figures; and, secondly and significantly, I will examine the need to take robust steps to create work. Sheffield Hallam university estimates that we need 170,000 extra people in work in Wales to bring us up to the standard of the best parts of the UK. That is a huge challenge. I immediately accept that the previous Government took great steps to increase the number of people in work. I know that this Government have that aim, but it is a huge number to reach.

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): In the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which just met upstairs, the Secretary of State for Wales could not answer the question posed by the Sheffield Hallam report of where the private sector jobs will come from for the thousands of people coming off incapacity benefit due to the Government’s welfare changes. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should slow down and look at the dire consequences of what they are doing?

Hywel Williams: I agree with the hon. Lady. The changes in welfare are being brought forward too quickly, but I am also concerned that the work on the other side of the coin—creating jobs for people who will hopefully be leaving the benefits system or unfortunately be moving to lower levels of benefit—is not being prosecuted sufficiently.

Figures were released in the report today, and the situation in Wales is particularly worrying. I hope that referring to only some of them will mean that I am not tediously repetitive, but they make for interesting reading. The total number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in my constituency is 1,245, and there were 364 jobs available at the jobcentre in the month in which the

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figures were collected, which is 3.42 claimants per job. If one adds in everyone who is on Department for Work and Pensions benefits, the total figure goes up to 5,590. I share the Government’s ambition of moving people who have been long-term sick or disabled back towards work. I agree entirely with that, because work is good for everyone, but it is a huge challenge just in my constituency.

In the most dire example in Wales—Rhondda—there are 2,315 claimants, which is 28.23 claimants per job, so there are 28 or 29 people chasing every job. I accept that some jobs are not advertised, but are available elsewhere. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) is smiling. Hopefully, I have drawn one of his teeth. I accept that statistics can be misleading, but there are 12,540 DWP benefit recipients, which means 152.93 claimants per job. The challenge is enormous. Incidentally, if, Mr Weir, you were sad enough to have looked at the debate on my ten-minute rule Bill about three weeks ago, you would have seen that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) claimed that the figure is 84 per job. Presumably, he knows his constituency better than I do, and possibly the official statistician, but he says 84 and I say 152.93. The challenge is enormous.

I am afraid that the situation is the same throughout the valleys. For example, Cynon Valley has 122 DWP benefit recipients per job. Interestingly, when one looks at the other side of the coin—where the jobs are—Alyn and Deeside has more than 1,000 jobs posted, so the figure there is 1.55 claimants per job, which is almost a job for everyone who is claiming JSA. That is a good situation to be in, but it stands out in Wales as the exception rather than the rule.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that the situation in Deeside, for example, is indicative of the fact that the manufacturing base there is extremely strong? The Government will emphasise developing the manufacturing sector rather than depending on state-created jobs, as the previous Administration did.

Hywel Williams: I agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I have long been a supporter of manufacturing, although it is not a prominent sector in large parts of rural Wales. The situation in Alyn and Deeside is helped by the fact that it is immediately adjacent to the Cheshire plain, where there are many jobs, and the huge investment in Airbus. There are lots of reasons, but it is a situation to which some people in the valleys might aspire. Alyn and Deeside has had a lot of Government help to reach that position.

The final column of figures is striking. It shows that there are nearly 72,000 JSA claimants, which is nearly 4.5 claimants per job, and more than 350,000 people on DWP benefits, which is nearly 22 claimants per job. The figures are breathtakingly difficult to cope with for any Government, either here or in Cardiff. The total Jobcentre Plus jobs available in June was a little over 16,000. We are talking about an enormous problem, and I do not envy the Minister or the Welsh Assembly Government, who are of a different political stripe but who have the same sort of aim, their jobs.

Some groups are hit particularly hard, and there is an issue of gender. There are now more women claiming JSA than at any point since the previous Conservative

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Government were in power in 1996. Across the UK, the number of women claiming JSA rose by 9,300 last month to a 15-year high of 493,000. That shows that there is an issue for women. The figures are expected to worsen, because the coming cuts are to the public sector, where there is a preponderance female employment, so women will be hit harder again. About two thirds of people employed in the public sector in the UK are women, so there is a differential effect.

The cuts come at the same time as a report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development notes that unemployment will remain high across the UK until 2015. The report was produced by crystal-ball gazers, so one has to take the figures with a pinch of salt, but that is their prediction. A real fact, which I think the hon. Member for Aberconwy has referred to, is that we know that 77,000 Welsh people have been claiming out-of-work benefits for 10 years or more. That is a startling and unhappy fact.

The Government’s welfare reforms are predicated on the assumption that jobs will be there for those who move off higher benefits. Welfare reform was originally partly introduced to encourage more people into work during a period of high unemployment, but it is now one of the more controversial aspects of the Government’s policies. The figures show clearly that the jobs are not available. I will not stray too far down this road but, in passing, there is a real danger that the net effect of job cuts, welfare reform and so on will be to force many people not into work but on to lower benefits.

Of course, the Government hope that the private sector will grow and take up the slack, but unfortunately growth is weak in the Welsh economy. In Wales, the private sector is weak and previous jobs growth in Wales was mainly in the public sector. I do not know whether there is a causal relationship and whether growth in the public sector leads to a weak private sector or the other way around—the private sector is weak and so public sector jobs take up the slack. We are talking about a complicated relationship.

We all agree that we must aim for jobs growth in the private sector. I do not blame the private sector in Wales, because we have to accept that the economy in Wales has been dealt successive blows for many years with the closure of heavy industry and the legacy of long-term illness and disability. As someone who belongs to a party that was in government until recently, I say that we must accept that economic policy in Wales, as conducted by Governments of every party, has not been as successful as we all hoped that it would be.

I hardly need to say therefore that I am in favour of developing the private sector. However, the private sector in Wales is intertwined closely with the public sector, and cuts in the public sector might endanger or even hamper growth in the private sector. The picture is complicated. The Sheffield Hallam university report states:

“The loss of public sector jobs will exacerbate the situation.”

We are looking at a complicated picture. Employment in the public sector is important but, of course, those sorts of jobs are going in the cuts. There might be a double blow to the Welsh economy of fewer public sector jobs and less business for the Welsh private sector.

I have long believed that we need to have better integration between job finding, job placements provided

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through Jobcentre Plus and the Work programme, and those Welsh Assembly Government Departments that can have a profound effect on people’s ability to take up jobs. I refer hon. Members to my ten-minute rule Bill, which I introduced a few weeks ago but did not get a Second Reading. I do not want to repeat the arguments that I made then, except to say that the Welsh Assembly Government have responsibility for services such as education and training, further and higher education, skills development, health and social services and child care—I could go on—and that a certain synergy could be achieved by better co-ordination with Jobcentre Plus and the Work programme. I have no doubt that those services could be better combined and co-ordinated to enhance jobseekers’ hopes of finding work.

The crux of my argument today is that we need not only to equip and motivate jobseekers better, but to introduce a variety of other policies that will provide jobs. We need a concerted effort at job creation and to provide long-term jobs rather than stop-gap placements that disappear after the target has been reached. That has been a feature of job creation in Wales over the past few years.

Guto Bebb: I could not agree more on the issue of creating long-term jobs. One of the sad facts of the situation in Wales is, in the 1990s, we were consistently at the top—or very close to the top—of the United Kingdom regional league table in terms of creating self-employment. In the past five years, we have consistently been in the bottom part of that league table and have, in fact, been in last position. The fact that the Government are introducing the enterprise allowance scheme again is a positive development, because a significant number of businesses in north-west Wales that were founded under the old enterprise allowance scheme still survive.

Hywel Williams: The hon. Gentleman makes a good and pertinent point. As I said, I am very much in favour of encouraging self-employers, and there are steps that we can take to do so. My entry into self-employment could not have been more disastrous. I left university and tried to claim a bit of benefit, as someone who supposedly knew something about the system, only to find that when I was down in Cardiff job hunting, I should have been at home signing on. I was therefore denied a bit of money that I might have claimed because I was not idle at home; I was out searching for that illusive job.

Other measures for which we in Plaid have argued in the past include a temporary cut in VAT to kick-start the economy. Of course, we recently had a vote on that. The Government parties voted against the proposals and I am afraid to say that the Labour party abstained. Some hon. Members will know that, since 2008, we have campaigned alongside the Federation of Master Builders and others for a specific cut in VAT on repair and renovation. Following last year’s ECOFIN decision, VAT on repair and renovation could go down to 5%. Other countries have followed that path by reducing VAT on labour-intensive industries, and they have had effective results. Many pre-1919 houses are in a particularly dire state and need fixing. That is peculiar to some parts of Wales, particularly the valleys. The work is available and there are, of course, the workers. What we need is a more favourable tax regime to encourage those workers to do the work. The Federation of Master Builders estimates that we could create about 100,000 jobs.

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Guto Bebb rose

Hywel Williams: I will give way once more, but I am anxious to hear what the Minister has to say.

Guto Bebb: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. May I concur with the comments that have been made? As a Member for an area that is very dependent on tourism, I have also heard the argument for a reduction in VAT for the tourism sector. Any Government who want to create enterprise and employment should look carefully at using the tax system to do that although, obviously, that has to be put in place once we have the public finances in order.

Hywel Williams: That is a moot point. I do not have the figures at my fingertips, but when VAT on construction services was reduced in Italy, a large number of people who were working cash in hand realised that becoming legal and paying a lower rate of VAT was worth while. Allegedly, the tax take went up, so given the Government’s current situation, it might be useful to consider that. I have not seen the operation of the famous Laffer curve being proven in such a way before but, allegedly, that was the case in Italy at least.

The 100,000 jobs that it is estimated that such an approach could create would be local, but there is also a strong equality case in favour of the policy. I put this question rhetorically rather than to the Minister: why should a young couple pay more for renovating their terraced house when a banker who retired early with a big pension pot does not pay VAT on his newly built ranch-style property in the south-east? I had to get that one in. There is an equality issue, and lots of young people are trying to renovate their houses, so the proposal would be a great help to them.

Lastly, as I realise that time is moving on, we also need to boost self-employment. I agree with the FSB, which estimates that the self-employed contribute £21 billion to the UK economy every year. It argues persuasively that self-employment is a key driver to achieving economic growth. That is particularly the case in Wales, as self-employment is a feature of much of rural Wales.

I agree with the hon. Member for Aberconwy when he argues for enterprise zones, particularly enterprise zones themed around certain types of activity. The only thing I worry about is that if we have enterprise zones throughout the UK—not just in Wales—they will not act as an incentive hub for a wider economic picture. In some places in the early 1980s, jobs were poached from other areas and the net effect was less than one had hoped for because, rather than creating new jobs, companies moved in to benefit from the improved climate within the enterprise zones. That is a particular worry. I understand that the Government intend to have such an enterprise zone somewhere in the north-west. I am not sure what is going to happen, but I will certainly keep an interest in the matter.

Irrespective of welfare reform, we need in Wales to boost the private sector, to equip our workers and workless people better, and to improve the integration of services to ensure that there are jobs for our people and prosperity for our country. We need a work creation programme—that is the missing part of the jigsaw. If that sounds a bit like the case for a future jobs funds 2, so be it, particularly if that is aimed at those who are

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inevitably at the end of the queue when jobs are being handed out—the long-term unemployed, and those incapacitated by illness or long-term disability.

5.20 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Chris Grayling): I congratulate the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) on securing the debate. I will have to respond to him relatively briefly because I think I have only nine minutes in which to speak.

The hon. Gentleman made his points extensively and thoughtfully, but I do not recognise the degree of bleakness in the picture that he portrays. I recognise that unemployment remains a major challenge for us around the country—it is one of the most difficult parts of our inheritance. I accept that a number of areas of Wales, like a number of areas of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, are affected by deep-rooted problems of worklessness. However, Wales has been one of the brighter spots in the labour market in recent times.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the private sector. In Wales in the past 12 months, the truth is that 31,000 net new jobs have been created. In reality, that represents a higher number of jobs in the private sector because the figure also takes into account job losses in the public sector. In the past year, Wales has proved that it is possible to grow private sector employment. Unemployment in Wales has fallen by 16,000. He asked where the jobs would come from. The truth is that in Jobcentre Plus in the past three months, nearly 48,000 vacancies have been taken in across Wales.

The total number of people on jobseeker’s allowance in Wales as a whole is 71,600. While I recognise that we have a challenge, and I particularly accept that we have a challenge in individual areas of Wales, the picture is not as bleak as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I certainly do not think that it is as bleak as is portrayed by the Sheffield Hallam research, which argues that, in the valleys alone, 70,000 more jobs would be needed. As the total JSA count for the whole of Wales is 71,000, I would have to say that its view is on the pessimistic side.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) is also right—to say that we really need to support the growth of self-employment in Wales. A central part of the task of encouraging and fostering economic and employment growth in Wales is supporting the self-employed. That is why I am committed to the success of the new enterprise allowance in Wales, which will help people off benefits and into self-employment, and it is why I hope that the new Administration in Cardiff will make self-employment a particular focus of its work with business.

If I was replying to a debate about an English region, I would be setting out a number of other areas in which the Government are taking steps to try and deal with the unemployment and worklessness challenge, including through apprenticeships, which are an essential part of our strategy. Particularly for the young unemployed, apprenticeships are a much more cost-effective way of delivering support and opportunity than the extremely expensive future jobs fund, which provided six-month placements in public and voluntary sector organisations at a time when the best job opportunities were arising in the private sector. The cost of that scheme was three to

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four times more than even the new deal for young people under the previous Government. The scheme was not affordable and did not deliver clearly improved results on either value or outcomes in comparison with other schemes. Investment in apprenticeships delivers a much better alternative, so I hope that the new Administration in Cardiff will pursue that route.

It is also important that the new Administration in Cardiff do a good job on economic development. If we were talking about another part of the UK, I would be talking to the hon. Gentleman about the importance of the regional growth fund to invest in manufacturing, and research and development facilities, in those areas of the country that have lower levels of private sector employment and bigger employment challenges. Again, I hope that the new Administration in Cardiff will take the lead set by the coalition Government in Westminster to set up a similar mechanism to the regional growth fund to invest in precisely the kind of opportunities that he rightly says that Wales needs.

We are taking clear steps to try and deal with the issue of worklessness in Wales. Alongside the introduction of the new enterprise allowance, that is being done through two particular schemes. The first is our work experience scheme, which is designed to address the challenge that young people face to get a first foothold in the workplace. All too often, they face the challenge of not having the experience to get a job, and not being able to get such experience without a job. One thing I learned quickly on becoming a Minister was that the previous Government’s rules said that if people did more than two weeks’ work experience, they lost their benefits. That was crazy. We have now changed that rule and it is possible to do up to eight weeks on benefits while doing work experience.

In addition, we have turned the whole system on its head and are now actively looking for work experience opportunities for young people across England, Scotland and Wales in an approach that will give young people an opportunity to gain initial experience in the workplace and show potential employers what they can do. I hope that that will prove to be a route into apprenticeships. Again, I hope that the Government in Cardiff will work with us to ensure that there is a clear link between the work experience opportunities for which we are looking through Jobcentre Plus, those first few weeks in the workplace, and an opportunity for those young people to move into an apprenticeship.

The other part of our strategy to help the long-term unemployed is the Work programme, which is now operating throughout the whole country. In Wales, we have two providers: Working Links and Rehab Group. Rehab Group is one of our two part-voluntary sector prime contractor groups. Alongside those two prime contractors, there is a network of different organisations around Wales helping to provide specialist support for the long-term unemployed. What makes the Work programme different is that it is all about delivering

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much more personalised and tailored support to the long-term unemployed and those who are moving off incapacity benefit.

I would take another issue with the Sheffield Hallam report. As a result of the changes we are making to incapacity benefit, no one will lose benefits except those who are currently in receipt of contributory employment and support allowance, which will be time-limited, and those who have other financial means. If people do not have an alternative form of support, they are not suddenly going to be cast on to the streets, but that is a point about which the report gives a slightly misleading impression.

I describe the Work programme as a giant employment dating service. It is about matching individuals to the right job opportunity, and a job opportunity in which they are likely to stay. It is important to the providers that they deliver because we do not pay them unless they get people into sustained long-term employment. They cannot earn their full fees for a conventional jobseeker for 18 months after that person has entered work, so if someone ends up in the wrong job and is likely to drop out, the provider will inevitably lose out financially. The providers therefore have every incentive to ensure that they match individuals to the right job opportunity in which they have the best chance of staying.

The Work programme will deliver a much better support than has previously been the case. It unleashes best practice. It will succeed the most if it delivers what works the best. There are no diktats from Whitehall—no instructions about how to do this—because it is all about delivering what works for individuals. I am confident that the Work programme will take back-to-work support to a new level and help many of those people who are trapped in pockets of long-term unemployment in Wales to find and move into opportunities that arise.

I am confident that we will see economic growth across the country. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility is forecasting significant growth in private sector employment in the next few years, and that has already been happening in Wales. The key is to ensure—this was not happening under the schemes that we inherited from the previous Government—that those who are trapped on JSA and other benefits have, when possible, the opportunity to take advantage of vacancies when they arrive. Our reforms are all about making work pay, supporting people into work and trying to create an environment across the UK in which business can flourish, grow and develop. In Wales, with the additional contributions that I hope will come from Cardiff to work with us on economic development and creating opportunities for business to grow and develop, I hope that that will provide a solution to the very real challenges of worklessness in Wales that the hon. Gentleman rightly identified.

Question put and agreed to .

5.29 pm

Sitting adjourned .