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Lord Avebury moved Amendment No. 5A:


The noble Lord said: My Lords, the amendment seeks to ensure that in local authority strategies for securing that sufficient accommodation is available for people in their district who are or may become homeless, attention is given specifically to the needs of gypsy families among others in the community.

As your Lordships may know, gypsies and Irish travellers are among the most extreme victims of social exclusion, suffering from lack of education, poor access to health and social services and severely limited job opportunities. They should benefit from the Race Relations (Amendment) Act, which imposes a duty on all public authorities to promote equality of opportunity, but, as far as I am aware, no steps have been taken by Ministers or local authorities to eliminate the huge disparities which exist between the gypsy community and the rest of the population. The lack of decent accommodation is at the root of the problem, as it has been ever since I first came to Parliament some 40 years ago.

There have been no studies on gypsies and homelessness, but all the travellers camping on unauthorised sites are homeless by the definition in Section 175 of the Housing Act 1996, to which reference has already been made. In comparison with the 532 rough sleepers indicated by my noble friend Lord Fearn, there were 2,608 families—not individuals—at the half-yearly count of gypsy caravans in January 2001.

Yet these people are not normally seen as homeless by the policy makers in the DTLR and its predecessors. The Green Paper did not mention gypsies and travellers at all, and the White Paper, Quality and Choice: A decent home for all, has one single paragraph on gypsies in all its 66 pages—and that refers simply to the 17 million refurbishment grant over a period of three years which has already been announced in the 2000 spending review.

The only other initiative mentioned was a research project to look at the availability and condition of sites, to be used as a means of assessing the need for new sites when it is finally published. As I understand it, this project is not likely to be ready in time to influence the 2002 spending review. Even if it

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concluded that the additional provision of private sites will never match the demand—and hence that homelessness would persist indefinitely for gypsies—Ministers have no idea of how to make up the shortfall.

It would be very difficult to reinstate the duty placed on local authorities by the 1968 Act after this distance in time. No local authority will make provision for gypsies on a voluntary basis. In fact, those authorities which have sites, in many cases have already off-loaded them onto housing associations.

It would be possible, perhaps, to encourage registered social landlords to provide group housing for gypsies and Irish travellers. There is anecdotal evidence to show that if schemes of that nature were developed they would be very popular—as they are, indeed, in the Republic of Ireland and, more recently, in the north of Ireland. Group housing is the preferred solution for travellers in all parts of the island of Ireland and it is highly unlikely that preferences would be completely different in Britain.

Novas, a housing association which already manages some gypsy sites, has indicated that it may be willing to develop group housing schemes, and the Housing Corporation has said that it would fund them in principle. In a letter from the Housing Corporation, Mr Norman Perry, the chief executive, said that it would consider applications for funding but that,


    "housing for travellers would have to be identified as a priority in the regional housing statement and local authority housing strategy in order to attract funding".

Of course individual local authorities are not going to provide accommodation for gypsies in isolation from their neighbours because they would expect to become thereby more attractive to homeless travelling people from elsewhere in the region, and thus incur more rather than less unauthorised camping. If the Government really want to solve this problem, they will have to provide some incentive for local authorities within each region to determine jointly what has to be done. A major weakness of the clause is that authorities are not required to consult with neighbouring districts, as I imagine would be desirable more generally than on the needs of gypsies in particular.

The noble and learned Lord said on Second Reading that,


    "if we produce a Bill that puts a duty on local authorities to produce their own homelessness strategies, then it is incumbent on central government to set out with some degree of precision what they intend to do in this area".—[Official Report, 12/11/01; col. 408.]

Presumably they will go into some detail on how they intend to assist—for example, the 13 districts in Kent to harmonise their strategies for dealing with homelessness as it affects gypsies.

Ideally there should be a plan for each of the regions, involving the government offices for the regions, whose purposes include the promotion of coherent regional approaches to social cohesion. This would fit in with the objectives of the Reaching Out action plan published by the Government, which states that government offices have a valuable regional perspective to bring to policy making, using the huge

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experience and expertise at regional and local level. The local housing authorities, and counties as well, have a great deal of knowledge of operating gypsy sites, but none of them can solve this problem by themselves.

Where would the money come from? The European Regional Development Fund would be a possible source, while in Britain money ought to be available from the New Deal for communities, which has already allocated no less than 10 billion over the next 10 years. That money is earmarked for neighbourhood renewal, but the Deputy Prime Minister said, when the fund was launched in September 1998, that the Government were,


    "committed to tackling the problems facing our most deprived communities".

As I have already said, the gypsy community is perhaps the most deprived of all. The fact that gypsies are not concentrated into particular neighbourhoods ought not to deny them access to that money.

In his wind-up speech on Second Reading, the Minister also said that the code of guidance dealing with homelessness would be sent out early this year. Can he give the House a sneak preview and tell your Lordships how authorities are to be advised to deal with the situation that arises from the case of Clarke v. Secretary of State [for the Environment, Transport and the Regions] and Another, which was heard in the Queen's Bench Division on 9th October last year? In that case it was found that taking into account the fact that a gypsy had refused an offer of conventional housing was contrary to Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That was a planning case, of course, but it would have to read across into homelessness.

If a gypsy becomes homeless and does not want to go into fixed housing, then, as I read the case, the authority would have to be able to offer him a pitch on a caravan site. That could be rather awkward, considering the national shortage of pitches. Hitherto, authorities would have been able to offer a homeless gypsy family bed and breakfast accommodation, knowing that it would almost certainly be refused. Now, they might have an obligation to provide space for a caravan, even though such a duty does not appear to fall within the scope of "housing functions under this Part" in Section 206 of the 1996 Act.

I hope that the Minister will confirm, first, that a strategy for homelessness has to cover the traveller families on unauthorised sites, as in Section 175(2) of the 1996 Act.

Secondly, I hope that he will confirm that local authorities, where gypsies reside or to which they resort, must explicitly declare how they are going to resolve any shortage of accommodation which is shown to exist by the fact of unauthorised sites in their area. That is a totally different question from the management of unauthorised encampments to which the Government have given a lot of attention.

Thirdly, and assuming that the answers to the first two questions are positive, I hope that the Government will undertake that their national

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strategy will enable local authorities to link up with their neighbours so that the patterns of new accommodation to be provided by gypsies themselves—and by, I hope, registered social landlords if they can be enlisted in the way I have described—match the demonstrated need and will eliminate gypsy homelessness. I beg to move.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, this amendment seeks to make clear that homelessness strategies should include a strategy not only for securing that sufficient accommodation is available for people in the district who are, or may become, homeless, but also for people who, broadly speaking, have some type of mobile accommodation available, but do not have anywhere available to site it and live in it.

I am very sympathetic to the purpose of the amendment. I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that people who find themselves in such circumstances—that is, they have a mobile home but nowhere to place it—are already included in the definition of statutory homelessness which is to be found in Part 7 of the 1996 Act. Indeed, as the noble Lord knows, he has borrowed the relevant part of that definition, which is to be found in Section 175(2)(b), in order to construct his amendment. So the answer to his first question is a clear "yes". The definition of homelessness would include such people as I have defined earlier in these remarks.

Since the reference to people who are, or who may become homeless in Clause 3 of the Bill, must mean people who are or may become homeless as defined in statute, all those who fall within the definition of homeless in Sections 175 to 177 of the 1996 Act, also fall within the definition of people who are homeless within Clause 3. So the strategy must, as appropriate, deal with that category of homelessness.

The Government believe that it is right that homelessness strategies and reviews, which must consider all forms of statutory homelessness, as I have just said, should be conducted by local housing authorities. The guidance to authorities which will accompany the Bill will spell out clearly those groups to whom the authority owes a homelessness duty and how provision for these groups will need to be considered in the process of formulating its homelessness strategy.

It is vital that local authorities should have effective strategies for managing gypsy and traveller issues. Such strategies have to be driven at the local level and involve communities. The local agencies—in particular, local authorities and the police—have a vital lead role to play. They are best placed to bring both the settled and traveller communities together in developing effective strategies.

The noble Lord asked a second question about travellers on unauthorised sites. He asked whether that meant that the homelessness strategy for that district has to deal with that specific problem. I do not believe that I can answer that question categorically yes or no.

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It will depend on the circumstances in each case. But as I have made clear, gypsies and travellers in the circumstances identified can be homeless within the meaning of Clause 3. All categories of homeless people have to be addressed in the local authority strategy.

The noble Lord then widened the horizon of the debate and said that we should go beyond simply local authorities and talk about a strategy which might be sub-regional or regional because one cannot look at this matter by reference to individual local authorities. Of course, we have no objections to local authorities co-operating across a wider area to consider provision for gypsies and travellers. Indeed, we believe that it is a sensible way to ensure that their accommodation and wider needs are met. However, it is also important that these issues are considered at local level as sites need local acceptance to be sustainable.

The noble Lord referred to work that has been done in looking at the issue. We have researchers working at present to investigate, among other matters, the availability, quality and management of gypsy sites; site provision, both in terms of what actually exists and what the demands are for all kinds, and other housing provision and how those demands can be met.

The aim of the research, which is due to report this summer, which, as the noble Lord said, would be after the date of the spending review report, is to give a much clearer picture of the situation on the ground and the likely need for sites in the future. We would wish to evaluate this research and consider how it should inform our future policy on these issues.

I believe that I have gone quite some way in giving reassurance to the noble Lord. I share his concerns. Work has been done to address the issue on a broader basis than simply local authority by local authority. In the light of what I have said, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment. I shall write to the noble Lord about government offices for the regions. I shall also write to him about the Clarke case because I am not in a position to say what guidance, if any, was given in relation to that matter.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I had a very helpful reply from the noble and learned Lord. He confirmed, as I hoped he would, that gypsies are covered by the strategy. He said that, where there are unauthorised sites in the area of a district or housing authority, the needs of the gypsies on those sites would have to be taken into consideration in formulating the strategy. The noble and learned Lord did not go quite as far as I had hoped in confirming that any gypsy on an unauthorised site was homeless by definition because he had no legal right to station his caravan on that particular land, whether he be on the side of the road or on land without the permission of the owner.

The definition in Section 175 of the 1996 Act would imply that any person not on a legally authorised site was in fact homeless. But that is a matter which I dare say local authorities will consider on an individual basis because there are some sites which in the past have been described as "tolerated". That is where a

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local authority has not taken any enforcement action. I suppose that the implication of the Minister's answer is that where a site is tolerated, the people living on it would not be treated as falling with the category of homeless. However, recently the Government have abandoned the use of the word "toleration" because they said that there was confusion with the police when deciding whether to take enforcement action on such sites for alleged criminal activities. The use of the word "tolerance" as regards planning enforcement was confused with the use of the word in relation to criminal offences that might be committed on the site. Therefore, that word is no longer in the vocabulary and nothing was used to replace it to describe sites against which local authorities do not intend to take enforcement action. Such sites may be the home of a gypsy or a number of gypsies, over a period of many years and without disturbance.

I am also grateful to the noble and learned Lord for endorsement of the idea that these problems cannot be solved by local housing authorities themselves and that they will need the help of the regions. When he writes to me I hope that he includes the government offices for the regions, because they are the logical organisations through which policy can be implemented over a wider region and money can be found to provide extra accommodation where that proves to be necessary.

I very much look forward to the national strategy which the Government intend to announce shortly. Unless one has a complete idea of the shortages that exist whether as regards rough sleepers, as we discussed a few minutes ago, or in this case the number of places required to accommodate all the gypsies living in the country, one cannot make plans within those totals as to what should be done within each of the regions and local authorities. The concerted action of government, regions and local authorities will be needed in order to solve this problem. I hope that the Government have the political will to see that all the districts have the means of carrying into effect the strategies that they put together, and that they will have the full support of Ministers in doing so. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 not moved.]

Clause 5 [Provision of accommodation for persons not in priority need who are not homeless intentionally]:


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