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Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, I thank the Minister for a comprehensive, helpful and beautifully timed response. I also thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this useful and wide-ranging debate. I do not wish to delay the House longer, except to make two points.
First, there has been a great deal of talk about the relationship between Europol and Interpol, with which I totally agree. I am grateful for the encouraging comments made by the Minister in relation to that. When we visited Lyons we discovered that there is a Europol liaison officer in place at Interpol. I hope that that will help the future relationship between the two organisations.
Secondly, with permission, I should like to give your Lordships a brief history lesson, which I would otherwise have left to that great historian, much missed in the House, the late Lord Russell. I am sure that he would have wanted to tell your Lordships that when a medieval sovereign took up residence on the banks of the Thames at a place called Sheen, he also held the title of Earl of Richmondin Yorkshire of courseand decided that he would change the name of the palace at Sheen to the Palace of Richmond. I shall probably get into trouble with my local community, but I think I have to give precedence to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris. I commend the report to the House.
Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Union Committee on Judicial Co-operation in the EU: the role of Eurojust (23rd Report, Session 200304, HL Paper 138).(Baroness Harris of Richmond.)
Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Union Committee on Strengthening OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office (24th Report, Session 200304, HL Paper 139).(Lord Scott of Foscote.)
The order will allow the police to evict trespassers intent on residing on land if they have six or more vehicles, or have used threatening language or behaviour, or caused damage to the land. Trespassers with only one vehicle can be evicted where a suitable alternative site is available within a reasonable distance of the unauthorised encampment. Those who refuse to leave may have their vehicles seized and, if prosecuted, face imprisonment and a fine of up to £2,500.
There has been consultation on this issue. A public paper was issued in the autumn of 2003 and the consultation commenced in October 2004. Responses to the consultation on the draft order have shown support for the introduction of this legislation as unauthorised encampments have been causing considerable problems over a number of years. In
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particular, they have given rise to complaints about public health, environmental concerns, traffic hazards and, in certain locations, adverse effects on businesses.
The consultation, however, also highlighted accommodation difficulties for nomadic Travellers, who occupy the majority of unauthorised encampments. I should say at the outset that there is nothing illegal about a nomadic way of life anywhere in the United Kingdom. To allay concerns about the impact on this community, the order contains a measure of protection. Accordingly, provided there are no public order issues, the police will be required to consult with the Housing Executive about the availability of an alternative suitable site when considering the eviction of Travellers from an unauthorised encampment.
While the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has responsibility for providing suitable accommodation for Travellers, I am aware that the provision of transit sites for those who pursue a nomadic lifestyle has not progressed as quickly as had been anticipated. In recognition of this, the substantive provisions of the order will not come into effect until an adequate number of transit sites are operational.
We believe that our approach strikes a balance between the needs of those who wish to pursue a nomadic way of life and the right of the settled communitywhich also has rightsto protection from the problems associated with unauthorised encampments. I beg to move.
The business and the problems of the travelling folk, as we know them at home, are well known and considerable, in particular the management of same. The problems exist in the remainder of the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, without possibly the same traditions involved as those of the travelling people in Ireland. This has been exacerbated by the legislation enacted in the Republic. At first sight this appears to be rather tougher than ours, but I do not think it is. However, it is said to have had the effect of driving a number of the travelling people out of the Republic into both mainland Britain and into the north. This has exacerbated the problem.
My concern is that the order does not go far enough and that it will be difficult to enforce. I do not like legislation of that kind being enacted in Northern Ireland. The first problem arises with the consultation. The Equality Commission, the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities and various other groups opposed the measures and stated so in the consultation. When official groups such as that object, we are already heading into trouble.
I am a little concerned about the programme of accommodation schemes but the Minister has somewhat clarified the position. He has admitted that the sites are not ready and therefore we cannot enact the order in full.
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The increase in the numbers of travelling people is also of concern. Again, I emphasise that I am not blaming the Government for the situation. It is not their fault. They have the problem of trying to create an environment in which travelling folk in Ireland can be managed.
It gets even more difficult when we consider the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides that domestic law and the Act affect all planning, eviction and enforcement decisions made by public authorities. There is also case law where the courts have failed to uphold evictions requested by local authorities.
While I accept that this is a good idea and very necessary, the legislation in the United Kingdom as a whole needs to be much more thoroughly researched, brought before Parliament and enacted before we rather hurriedly try to enact a statutory instrument in order to put a finger in the hole of a problem that has existed in Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole for a very long time.
I support the Government in attempting to solve the problem but I am not supportive of the suggestion that they have gone far enough in so doing. They have not given the issue enough thought or research. For instance, there will be difficulties with the power to remove trespassers from land. What is so magical about six vehicles? I do not know. What are those vehicles? Are they caravans or are they cars and caravans? If they are cars and caravans, is that two vehicles or one? That may be in the regulations somewhere, but I am not aware of it.
There are various defences shown in the order. One defence is that the would-be trespasser has a reasonable excuse for failing to leave the land as soon as reasonably practicable. What is a "reasonable excuse" and "reasonably practicable"?
I am saying this only to make my general point that this is not good legislation. It is a pity to rush it through now. It needs more thought and more work done on it and it needs to be incorporated into a national UK Bill that accepts that there are travelling people. I accept that the Housing Executive, which is a fine body and has done extremely good work over 30 years, has done what it can, but travelling people do not want to be put in housing sites and permanent parks, and so on, because that is not the way of the people. There are some who want to perch for a few years while they educate their children, but there are many more who are naturally wanderers.
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