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Baroness Whitaker: In supporting these amendments, I am aware that the Government are carrying out a review of accommodation for Roma, gypsies and travellers, set out by my honourable friend Yvette Cooper in her letter of 15 January to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I appreciate this long overdue concern which does the Government credit. But whatever the conclusions of the review on means, this Bill gives an opportunity to create the necessary framework for further steps which should not be missed, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said.

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I know personally of Roma families who cannot get authorised sites—I will not weary the Committee by detailing their insecurity. These people are our oldest indigenous minority and the prejudice and discrimination that they suffer is no less severe by being usually unacknowledged. It is seen in the higher mortality rates of their children, lack of educational attainment, even of attendance, poverty and ill health. I hope that my noble friend can help now.

Baroness Maddock: I strongly support the words of my noble friend Lord Avebury except possibly for his views on the Mayor of London—who may not always be the Mayor of London and who, as my noble friend sitting next to me has pointed out, may even be the outgoing Mayor.

I was in local government when the first major changes regarding travellers were made. I think that we forecast what would happen. My noble friend Lord Avebury has very graphically explained it, and the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, has backed that up. I am fortunate that I live in the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed where the local authority has an absolutely excellent traveller site. Anyone who goes on the railway line can see it from the line—it is absolutely spotless. It is right in the middle of the town and we have no problems. I was also a councillor in Southampton where we also had a very successful site. Where the sites exist, it works. It is in the interests of the travellers. The children go to school and are enabled to live life as they wish to do. Given everything we have heard from the Government, I hope that they will take this opportunity to do something about it, even if it is not exactly what we are asking today.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Rooker: I want to be as helpful as I can but I shall probably not be as helpful as noble Lords would wish at this stage of the Bill. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for bringing forward the amendments which provide us with the opportunity to put some of the issues on the record regarding the accommodation needs of gypsies and travellers and how they might be addressed in the new planning arrangements.

There is no question that this is an important point; namely, how the needs of gypsies and travellers, both those wishing to settle on sites and those who still travel for a living, might be met under the new arrangements.

As the noble Lord knows, we are currently undertaking a review of our gypsy and traveller policies. The review includes consideration of how site provision will be secured under the new planning arrangements and we are taking close account of the ideas proposed by the Institute for Public Policy Research in its document Moving Forward which I understand will be published shortly. I certainly do not wish to prejudge the outcome of our review, but it might be helpful if I sketch out one of the ways in which gypsy and traveller needs might be identified and incorporated into the new planning regime.

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The leading option we are considering is to assess the site and pitch needs of gypsies and travellers under a process similar to that used for housing need assessments—possibly as part of that very same process. Under such an arrangement gypsy and traveller site needs could be identified and incorporated into the regional housing strategy which, under our current proposals, is then reflected in the regional spatial strategy in terms of numbers of sites by local planning authority. The identification of where the sites should be in each authority's area would then be the responsibility of the local planning authorities in preparing their local development documents.

Clearly, once site and pitch requirements are identified in the regional spatial strategy they may be subject to public examination and the Secretary of State must agree the finalised strategy. It will, of course, be a requirement that local development documents are in general conformity with the regional spatial strategy. I should stress that our ideas of exactly how we will ensure the needs of gypsies and travellers will be met are at an early stage. But we are satisfied that we shall be able to integrate their legitimate requirements into the new planning arrangements without amending the Bill in this respect. I say that in Committee but certainly we have ongoing work in this respect.

The ODPM review of gypsy and traveller policy is reviewing all aspects of ODPM policy responsibility, including planning, site provision and managing unauthorised encampments. It is not the case that Ministers have ruled out an expansion in provision. I do not know where that rumour has come from. However, it would be quite wrong of me to comment on any particular planning case. I understand these situations. As I say, for a year I was the planning Minister at the ODPM and dealt with several cases. I have part of some correspondence between the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and Yvette Cooper, the policy Minister in the department. She indicated in a draft of the reply, which I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has yet received:

    "We will be conducting some seminars on this issue in the very near future in Cambridge, Liverpool, London and Derby starting next week to run to probably nearly the end of February going over the issues of land use policy, planning consent for private sites, improving access to health, education and other services, public site provision and management and general issues including unauthorised camping".

We are in close contact with the organisations representing gypsies and travellers. Indeed, we shall let the noble Lord know the precise dates and locations of the seminars. If he wishes to take part in any of them, he will be more than welcome. I say that in a genuine spirit of helpfulness. I am not trying to avoid responding to the issues that have been raised. Some thorny issues will have to be tackled once we have conducted the policy review. I refer to the expenditure proposals and the 2004 spending round. Nevertheless, we treat the issue with the utmost seriousness. It is an important issue so far as the department is concerned.

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I cannot go much further regarding that point tonight; otherwise, I shall go down the road that I hate going down; namely, that of referring to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Treasury and finance. The central issue is to establish the policy and to ensure that we put in place a process within the new planning system whereby it is not possible to avoid providing the required number of sites. The need must be measured and assessed openly. The connection between the regional spatial strategy and local development documents does not allow a local authority to opt out and say, "We are not having such a measure. We have no need of it". As I say, we shall ensure that local development plans by and large conform to the regional spatial strategy. We can solve this problem for the foreseeable future, not just for a few years. This is a generational issue for our fellow citizens. We shall do our best to come up with something that is acceptable to all parties concerned, including, of course, as a priority, gypsies and travellers themselves.

Lord Avebury: I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful answer and for inviting me to take part in the forthcoming seminars. I shall certainly take up that offer when the dates are announced, just as I shall take up the invitation from Yvette Cooper who has kindly invited me to discuss the matter personally with her. I very much value that opportunity.

As the noble Lord suggested, the Bill can take care of the accommodation needs of gypsies just as it takes care of the accommodation needs of the rest of the population. I agree with the noble Lord that one of the best ways of doing that is what he called the leading option; namely, to assess the needs of gypsies as part of ordinary housing needs and therefore to incorporate their requirements in the regional spatial strategy. As I understand it, the RSS will set an overall target for every region regarding the amount of accommodation that is necessary for people in the settled population. It will also add a separate element of accommodation for gypsies. That was one of the two alternatives that I mentioned.

Then, as the noble Lord says, local planning authorities will have to identify in the local development documents what contribution they will make to the attainment of those targets. As the noble Lord said, there is no opt-out there. As I understand it, local authorities in a region will collectively have to provide a total number of sites that equates with the figure set out in the regional spatial strategy.

The noble Lord did not mention the third leg of the policy. If the total number of gypsy sites within a region did not match the target set out in the RSS, a reserve power of direction exists in the legislation. I referred to that in a separate amendment. I suggested that the power should not be exercised in the first year after the coming into force of the Act so that local authorities have every chance to get together voluntarily to provide the relevant amount of accommodation. If they have not achieved that objective after 12 months, the powers of the Secretary of State will come into play.

I am sure that we ought not to take the matter any further this evening in view of the helpful reply that the Minister has given. Therefore, I shall withdraw the amendment and hope that it will not even be necessary

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to return to the matter on Report subject to my discussions with the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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