New clause 5 - Removal of unauthorised encampments and waste

Anti-social Behaviour Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am ar 22 Mai 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

'.—The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 is amended as follows:

In Section 61 (Power to remove trespassers on land)

(a) For subsection (1) there is substituted—

''(1) If the senior police office present at the scene reasonably believes that two or more persons are trespassing on land and are present there with the common purpose of residing there for any period and that reasonable steps have been taken by or on behalf of the occupier to ask them to leave he may direct those persons or any of them to leave the land and to remove any vehicles, other property or waste they have with them on the land or which appears to the officer to be connected to their presence on the land.''.

(b) Subsection (2) is omitted.

(c) In Subsection (4) there is inserted after paragraph (b)—

''(c) Fails to remove any vehicles, other property or waste which he has with him on the land or which appears to be connected to his presence on the land.''.

(d) In Subsection (6) paragraph (b) is omitted.'.—[Mr. Paice.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Question proposed [this day]: That the clause be read a Second time.

Question again proposed.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness 2:30, 22 Mai 2003

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

New clause 11—Deliberate despoiling and/or mis-use of land—

'(1) The Chief Executive Officer of the relevant local authority may make an eviction order in relation to premises to which this section applies if he reasonably believes that—

(a) a public nuisance is being caused by deliberate despoiling or mis-use of land by the owners or occupiers of that land;

(b) the eviction of any persons whether owners or occupiers or trespassers or visitors is necessary to prevent that nuisance and/or to correct the despoiling or mis-use of the land.

(2) A person commits an offence if he permits or authorises the continuing mis-use or despoiling of land or creation of a public nuisance on it or aids or abets others to do so.

(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to—

(a) imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months,

(b) a fine not exceeding £20,000,

(c) both.'.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

It is a pleasure to be back on my feet after the luncheon interval, which gave me a good opportunity to collect my thoughts, although they may not necessarily be any more coherent. As we are within striking distance of the winning post I do not want to delay the Committee long.

Unauthorised incursions by travellers have been of great concern to many of my constituents. As I was saying just before lunch, one of the most alarming developments in the past few years has been the increased use of car parks, private and public, by travellers. When they use private company car parks, they cause not only untold unpleasantness, but severe commercial restriction. Despite legislation being passed, either there is confusion or different authorities claim that the problem is not a matter for them. Anything that would clarify the position would be welcome.

The frustration caused by the incursions is understandable. The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) talked about the noise at night from generators parked near to people's houses. During the summer months when windows are open, both the smell and the noise come through. I am worried that some of the people affected will take the law into their own hands. I am especially worried about bank holiday weekends when local authority staff are stretched. None of us would condone such action, but the public need to know that there are strong measures that can be used.

The number of people who agree with the statements that were made this morning show that this is not a question of bigots who do not want to co-exist peacefully with others. I have an authorised travellers site in my constituency and I have been working with the community there. I have learned a lot about their way of life, and I have tried to improve conditions and the education of their children. The travellers themselves say that one of the biggest causes of antipathy towards them is the bad press that results from unauthorised incursions. The hon. Member for Stockton, South said that some of the travellers who make unauthorised incursions do not want to go to the official sites even if there is space.

Thankfully, serious problems have not occurred in Hillingdon in recent months. Having said that, I am sure that that caravans are now massing at the border and will arrive on a bit of land this coming bank holiday. The problem has not been so severe recently because of the strong action taken by the local authority and the Metropolitan police, but it has been serious in the past in my area and it remains so elsewhere. The Government should consider how they can help.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

I, too, can relate several awful incidents when groups of travellers have visited my constituency and left the sort of legacy of despoilment that other members of the Committee have described. Crime has increased and there have been acts of intimidation. Inevitably, the price of that conduct has been paid by the local authority and therefore by the local taxpayer.

The new clauses are born of the frustration felt by all Members of Parliament and our communities. We do not necessarily want more to be done; instead, we want what is being done to be done more quickly, efficiently and effectively. I share that frustration. Local authorities have been hamstrung to some degree by their duty under the welfare principle. However, on 15 January 2002 in a Westminster Hall debate, my

hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), then a Home Office Minister, stressed that travellers should—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

Order. Will whoever has the bleeper please switch it off?

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

Thank you, Mr. Cran.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey argued that travellers should be accorded the same human rights as others, but that human rights considerations did not prevent the use of the law to prevent illegal trespass leading to antisocial or criminal behaviour. She said to the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay):

''The right hon. Gentleman might be interested in a recent case in the High Court in which section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994—the part that encompasses police powers—was challenged and found not incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. I hope that that is another reassurance that he will take away with him. Each operation by the police is subject to challenge on the same grounds, so the police must bear the Human Rights Act in mind. However, within the context of what I have just said—that all people's rights are equal in our society—if people behave in an antisocial or criminal way, or in some of the ways that the right hon. Gentleman outlined, the full force of the law can and should be brought to bear.''—[Official Report, 15 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 67WH.]

That is quite clear. The point at issue is therefore enforcement, which is the subject of the new clauses and of our concerns.

The Government have none the less recognised that police powers need to be beefed up so that they can challenge unauthorised campers. Consultation is under way on guidance on how to do precisely that. Will the Minister let the Committee know how that consultation is proceeding? The intention behind the guidance is clearly to enable the police, the local authority and all parties concerned about such dire behaviour to deal with it more effectively. I hope that he will accept the intention behind the new clauses, which is to achieve what we all want.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

Most of us agree with the aims of the new clauses, which are designed to undo the frustration that we all feel when it appears that existing powers cannot be used for all sorts of bemusing reasons. If the Minister is going to ask for the new clause to be withdrawn, we need to think about how we can make existing legislation effective and use the Bill to improve matters.

As members of the Committee know, it has been a recurring theme of mine that we should use the Bill to draw a line in the sand and say that the culture has to change. Our debate on the new clause has touched on the clash between individual rights and the general good of the community. Nothing is more important than individual rights, and most of us accept that each individual has certain inalienable rights, but they must be seen alongside the good of the community. The ''rights'' of certain individuals to create mayhem are taking precedence over ordinary people's ability to carry on with their lives, as evidenced by the activities of certain traveller groups.

The balance of rights is out of kilter, and I believe that the aim of the new clause is to rebalance them, not to trample over the rights of individuals who may have lifestyles that we do not consider to be normal, or of people who are eccentric and who drive around in a caravan or on a horse and cart and like living under the stars. People have a right to live like that if they want to, provided that doing so is not to the disadvantage of others. That goes to the heart of the Bill and almost every clause of it. We are having a very interesting philosophical debate about individual rights, collective rights and the general good. It is vital to balance individual rights with the general good and the protection of the individual whose rights are being infringed by people who will not conform. If we do not do that, the Bill will fail.

Photo of Laura Moffatt Laura Moffatt Llafur, Crawley

The new clauses address two aspects of illegal encampment. Even short-term illegal encampments by passing groups of travellers would be better tolerated by communities if the site was left in decent order. The reason why people have become more intolerant is that the sites are left in the most appalling mess. That is what communities find so difficult to put up with. Does he agree that people have been pushed to this point because of the filthy state in which the sites have been left?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

I agree. Many members of the Committee have made that important point.

I say to the Minister that we must find some way to monitor the impact of the new clauses. Whatever new powers we insert into the Bill, we must find some way to let local authorities and local police know what powers they have. There is tremendous ignorance about what powers are available—that is not a criticism, but a statement of fact. Hon. Members have asked what powers are available, and I am sure that people are often unclear about what powers they have to tackle illegal encampments and other problems. That is a fundamental flaw in our procedure. When we in Parliament pass laws, we must ensure that people understand what powers are available to them to tackle problems in our communities.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:45, 22 Mai 2003

I agree with many of the comments that hon. Members have made. I recognise all the issues, as hon. Members might imagine given the part of the country that I come from and its popularity in summer. Legislation that was introduced for the best possible reasons—looking after the welfare of children—has caused delay, as we know. However, what it says is right, which creates a big dilemma.

I recognise that there are problems with private land. Again, I have been a sponsor of a Bill—the Traveller Law Reform Bill—promoted by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), which he has presented twice. I am supportive of the approach taken in that Bill. My main concern is that in this Committee, we are trying to deal with the issue out of context. It might appear that I am trying to slow things down, but I am not sure that so many different

things should be included in one Bill, because some of the issues need broader examination.

I acknowledge the public outrage at the cost that must be met by the council tax payer, and I hope that the Government also acknowledge that concern. However, I am not convinced that the Bill is the best place to tackle the issue. We are rather constrained, and wider issues need to be considered simultaneously.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cran. I am deeply disappointed that this is the last sitting of the Committee. May I break with precedent by informing the Committee what the beeping that we just heard was all about? It was a kind message from the Government Whips Office saying that those who are not serving on a Standing Committee may go home. Happily, by way of balance, the second message—for which, in the interests of our deliberations, there was no beep—said that there were long delays at Heathrow and suggested that hon. Members delayed their departure by an hour or so. Our colleagues are therefore here in spirit if not physically, as they go on their way—

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

Order. I should like to register the fact that I, too, would like to get home sometime today.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I assure hon. Members that, as an ex-Whip, that is the only revelation that I shall make about the listings on parliamentary Labour party pagers.

The discussions on the amendments have been useful. I fully understand hon. Members' frustration, which is rooted largely in the perceived powerlessness and inadequacy of the existing laws. However, I take issue with that perception to some extent, and I shall return to the point later in my speech.

I do not want to labour the point, but I do not think that it is useful to talk about travellers descending like plagues of locusts or to put the words ''traveller'' and ''criminal'' into some degree of synonymity, if that is the correct term. The issue is important and it impinges to some extent on all our communities and constituencies, so it should be debated, but not in those terms. In my ministerial capacity and otherwise I have met and had dealings with Baroness Young. As the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) has said, she does an excellent job at the Environment Agency. The comments were unfortunate.

New clause 5 would introduce new powers. In its intent, it is not a million miles from what we are seeking to do through the guidance mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman). I shall read the introductory part of that guidance. It starts from three basic guiding principles that directly or indirectly underpin much of what hon. Members have said. The first of those states:

''Unauthorised camping is unlawful; there is no 'right' for Gypsies and other Travellers (or anyone else) to stop where they want, for as long as they want, or to behave without regard to others.''

We must be practical about such issues rather than just make ourselves feel good by passing legislation. The second principle states that

''in the short term—until more authorised sites have been provided—unauthorised camping will still take place and policies should seek to manage encampments to minimise disruption for all concerned.''

That is what my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) suggested. I could dwell on other elements of our policy in that area, but I will not. The third principle states:

''Standards of behaviour expected of Gypsies and other Travellers at encampments should be those expected of the settled community, and enforcement should be based on uniform expectations''

of behaviour, no more, no less,

''which should be effectively communicated''—

the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker)—

''to Gypsies and other Travellers.''

Those three principles underpin our guidance, which is designed, to strengthen eviction powers in appropriate circumstances, to fill a gap in existing law, to make provision for further temporary and transitory encampments, and to tackle under-provision. It represents a rounded way of dealing with all aspects of a problem that is very real, as all hon. Members have said and I freely admit.

Some of the difficulties are rooted in the fact that sometimes action is not taken, but that is not always the case—many local authorities and police forces do take action in the right fashion. Some speakers have mentioned relevant provisions: section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, section 61(4) and (5) of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 can and should be used far more readily than they are. A concoction or portfolio of existing legislative measures can and should be used.

There is a gap that must be filled. Underpinning the Bill is the recognition that action, consequences and provision to prevent the action from being needed are important. That is why we produced the guidance. Happily, I can inform the Committee that consultation on the guidance closes tomorrow. We shall spend most of the next two or three months analysing the exercise and producing final guidance and a set of recommendations. The work is well along the way, and much of what is in new clause 5 is embraced by it.

I am keenly aware that there may be elements of the new clause that do not come out as readily as they should in the guidance, but I ask the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) to withdraw the motion in the context of the Government considering it in relation to the guidance we are working on. It may be of some use for us to return to it, and I shall be more than happy to do so.

The new clause does not deal with the more vexed issue of how to deal with encampments that are illegal, or that certainly do not have planning permission, in the context of ownership. I know that that is an issue, not least from my diary and meetings, lovely though they are, with assorted hon. Members from all parties

about vexed issues of ownership and whether ownership is rooted in a site or field that is broken down into smaller divisions of ownership, not simply for the gypsy and travelling community, but for others who seek to transgress or get round various aspects of the law. New clause 11 also introduces issues relating to ownership of land. We shall consider that matter in far more detail. If that new clause is not pressed, I undertake to consider it further and see whether we can do something with the sentiments behind it in the context of the Bill or, if appropriate, elsewhere.

Even though the consultation finishes tomorrow, if it is appropriate and hon. Members would like me to, I am more than happy to send them a copy of the consultation on guidance document for their pleasure over the Whitsun holiday.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

I am grateful to the Minister for what he has just said about new clause 11; that is enormously helpful. One way of dealing with the matter might be to supply those who are responsible for the consultation with a copy of the Hansard of today's debate. If the Minister says that the points that have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee in this important debate will be taken into account as part of the consultation, that would be helpful.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I can certainly do that. If these were more normal circumstances and I could disregard the vagaries of the way in which the House works, I could say, ''Don't look now, but if I turn round and point at someone, that is the very person who will do it.'' However, as those people do not exist in the Room, I will not do that. In any case, the hon. Gentleman can be assured that his point will be taken on board.

I am more than happy to give the guidance, just by way of information, to members of the Committee if that is helpful and to put it in the context of what we are trying to do with the gypsy site refurbishment grant, research, provision of sites and all the other elements of policy. I am more than happy to give everyone a phone book-sized document that sums up where we are on gypsy and traveller provision and the carrot and stick approach, in which we say that rights and responsibilities come with recognising any community's lifestyle. There are norms and standards of behaviour that may be expected from all communities—settled, gypsy and traveller alike. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the motion.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am sorry that the Minister was not present for the whole of my introductory speech moving the new clause. Had he been, he might have understood even more clearly the strength of feeling and the justification for it.

I welcome the Minister's closing remarks. I am sure that the whole Committee will be interested to see the consultation document. I strongly commend to him the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). He should take the Hansard for today's proceedings as part of the response to the consultation. There has been great

unanimity on the issues across the Committee. I said from the outset that I did not pretend that the new clause was absolutely right, nor did I expect it to cover every issue. That is why my hon. Friend tabled new clause 11 to cover ownership, which is also a factor in my constituency and in many others.

In my constituency I have always strenuously made the point that I do not criticise those who wish to have an itinerant lifestyle. That is their choice—I am a libertarian and I consider it to be a free world—but obligations go with that choice. Those obligations are the same as for those who live a conventional lifestyle. All must obey the law and not interfere beyond reason with how others live their lives. We have heard today how a significant proportion of travellers, although certainly not all, do interfere with those who live more conventional lives. That is what we seek to combat.

The Minister said that we should not link travellers and criminality. I was at pains not to make that link 100 per cent., but the Minister does himself a disservice if he does not recognise the widespread view in the community—a view shared by some police officers—that many travellers are involved in criminality. I will not put a percentage on it, but it is certainly higher than the percentage for the rest of the population. Many senior police officers make that point to me. We should not shy away from that out of any form of political correctness.

This debate is about a culture of behaviour. If people wish to have a certain lifestyle that is fine, as long as they accept the same norms of behaviour as the rest of us do. As the hon. Member for Gedling rightly said, the Bill is about setting a series of norms—drawing a line in the sand, as he put it—for what is acceptable and what is not. The Bill is therefore a useful vehicle to deal with this problem.

The Minister referred to existing legislation by which public bodies, the police and local authorities can deal with unauthorised encampments and the other problems caused by travellers, but in far too many cases that is not happening. I hope that the guidance that the Minister is talking about will be adequate, but I have my reservations. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) mentioned children. We have seen how they have been used by some as a means of preventing actions under section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. No one pretends that the needs of children should not be taken into account, but that should not prevent the other powers from being used to protect the rest of society.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

Is it not therefore important that we take up the Minister's offer to see the guidance at this point? Yes, a certain amount of information will transfer into the process, but there will be other points that hon. Members wish to make.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thought that I had made it clear that I welcome the Minister's offer to show us the guidance. I am still entitled to have my reservations until I have seen it in action and know whether it works.

The Minister referred to the sufficiency of authorised sites but, as the hon. Member for Stockton, South said, many travellers will not use them. My constituency has a large number of authorised sites, many of which are half empty. Yet there are unauthorised sites that cause the problems that I described. The Minister and those who, as he said, are not present would be mistaken to believe that simply ensuring that there are enough sites will solve the problem; it will not. There are many who, for all sorts of reasons including family disputes or feuds—they seem to be commonplace among some traveller fraternities—will not use existing sites if someone else is on them. However, that does not excuse unauthorised encampments on public or, as it relates to new clause 5, private land, which cause immense cost and inconvenience to the private landowner—a business or an individual—who has to deal with the problem. That is the reality of the world we live in.

Every hon. Member who has contributed to the debate has spoken about the mess that the travellers make and I want to stress that issue. Part of my objective in tabling the new clause was to get rid of that mess, make the travellers liable for it and require them to take it with them when they move. Unless I am mistaken, the Minister did not say anything about it when he talked about the guidance, but I hope he will give the matter due thought in his consideration of it and of the results of the consultation. The message from his hon. Friends is as strong as it is from Conservative Members, that the mess is a major part of the problem. The hon. Member for Crawley thought that unauthorised encampments would be more acceptable if it were not for the waste, and that is probably true. The mess and the smell of the detritus left behind is horrendous. The Minister is mistaken if he does not accept that that is an issue.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath 3:00, 22 Mai 2003

As my hon. Friend knows, I agree with everything he says, especially his last point. Does he agree that when the Government review the issue—the Minister helpfully said that he was taking all our points into account—they need to understand that if all the laws that could be used against travellers were enforced, and proper financial penalties were levied on them, they might not then be in a financial position to benefit from the black economy? Thus they could not use the tactic they have used in my constituency: using their ill-gotten gains from the black economy to buy sites. Would not it be a way to ensure that the mess was cleared up if they had to pay for it? It would also prevent them from buying sites.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

To be honest, I am not sure I go all the way with my hon. Friend. I shall not say that they all have ill-gotten gains; it is not for me to know how some of them make their money, but I suspect that some have obtained money that at the very least they probably have not declared to the Inland Revenue. That is putting it as politely as I can. Travelling people should be subject to the same legislation, including tax legislation, as the rest of us. That is the sort of issue that annoys, frustrates and angers our constituents who obey the law and pay their taxes. They find it astonishing that some people apparently do not do so.

I welcome the Minister's remarks about the guidance, which I hope is as strong in finding a better balance as he implied that it would be. There is widespread frustration, which he has witnessed today, that the current measure, however carefully drafted it is and however proper it appears, is not working. It is not being used in the way that the instigators, from all parties, wanted it to be used and we must take the matter further.

I hope that the results of the Minister's consultation will be available before the Bill completes its passage, so that further legislation to toughen it up may be incorporated if necessary.

This has been a very useful debate. Without wishing to pre-empt what may happen in later stages, it has probably created more unanimity than any other debate during the Committee's proceedings. As its instigator, I am pleased by that. I hope that the Minister will accept that unanimity and produce something that helps all our constituents who suffer greatly from the problem that we have been discussing.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.