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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): Last year, we received one representation from the British Holiday and Home Park Association in response to our local government finance Green Paper, and a further 15 representations and one petition to the Queen from residents of mobile and park homes about council tax.
Mr. Borrow: Most of my constituents who live in mobile homes in the Tarleton, Penwortham and Banks areas occupy properties worth less than £20,000. They always tell me that they consider it unfair that they should pay the same council tax as occupiers of properties worth twice as much. Will my hon. Friend give serious consideration in the current review of local government finance to the introduction of an additional council tax band below band A to deal with that blatant unfairness towards owners of park homes?
Ms Hughes: My hon. Friend is very experienced in matters of valuation generally, so I respond to him with some trepidation, especially as I cannot accede fully to his request. He will know that restructuring the bands, including splitting a band, would require primary legislation. We have no plans to introduce such legislation in the foreseeable future. However, I am aware of the views that he has expressed and we are keeping the matter under review, as I have made clear.
Furthermore, although the local government finance Green Paper did not address the issue specifically, a number of respondents have raised the matter with the Government. We shall certainly consider those responses as we move towards preparing a White Paper on local government finance.
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): It is not the Minister's fault, but there is complete disarray when it comes to the council tax bands applicable to park home estates. Whether a park home is placed in council tax band A depends entirely on the whim of the district valuer. A great many people, both in the House and outside, assumed at the outset that park homes would be in band A. Is not there an excellent case for putting them in band A and dealing with them in that manner?
Ms Hughes: That is another example of the new party of local government demonstrating its very short memory, as the banding structure for council tax was introduced by the Conservative party. By definition, any banding system will mean that bands have lower and upper limits, and that there is a range in each band. The Government are aware of the view that the bands should be restructured. We are keeping the matter under review. The relevant legislation will not be changed in the foreseeable future, but we will consider the matter in the context of the White Paper on local government finance.
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I support everything that my hon. Friend the Minister has said about council tax banding. One indicator of the health of the park home sector is that people are prepared to invest sometimes six-figure sums in such homes. Does not that show that the Government are right to pursue reform of the sector, and that the previous Government's Mobile Homes Act 1983 was completely useless and transparently hopeless when it came to preserving the
Ms Hughes: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the investment that many owners of park homes put into their properties is very creditable. He will know that it was this Government who established the working party to take up some of the issues that the previous Government had long neglected in relation to park home owners. That working party's report was published in July 2000. We are consulting on it and considering the recommendations.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): My Department has issued revised circular guidance to local authorities on unauthorised camping, making it clear that criminal or antisocial behaviour should not be tolerated in any circumstances. Such behaviour is as unacceptable in the gypsy and traveller communities as it is in the settled community and it should be dealt with using the powers already available to local authorities and the police. A copy of the circular, issued on 26 July 2000, is in the Library of the House.
Mr. Randall: The Minister must be aware that one problem that is often encountered is that when an illegal encampment is evicted, the occupants simply go a short distance away and create another nuisance. Is his Department thinking of any measures that could be taken that would prevent such behaviour, which is creating much expense for local authorities, individuals and businesses?
Mr. Mullin: The difficulty is that merely moving people on does not solve the problem, because it simply transfers it over the border into the area of a neighbouring local authority. The key to dealing--[Interruption.] It is a serious issue. The key to dealing with problems with travellers is co-operation between local authorities and the police. When the police and local authorities work closely together--there are some examples of good practice that others would do well to emulate, such as in Essex, Northamptonshire and Oxford--the problem caused by antisocial travellers can be easily contained.
I am not sure that there is a very great problem in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. We looked up the returns that his local authority, Hillingdon, had made for the number of illegally parked caravans. It did not make a return to the most recent census, in July 2000, and the highest number in recent years was seven, in January 1999.
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): Is not one problem that the traditional activity of many illegal travellers and campers is waste collection and disposal, which they carry out in defiance of environmental protection law, which covers the licensing of vehicles and
Mr. Mullin: Yes, my hon. Friend is quite right. A large part of the problem is not a lack of powers but a lack of proper enforcement. The powers exist and there are some fairly stiff penalties, but co-operation between local authorities and police, and sometimes other agencies, is needed to ensure that they are properly enforced.
Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I wonder whether the Minister recognises how complacent he sounds on this issue. The Government have simply failed to act effectively. If he does not want to accept that from me, perhaps he will listen to the words of the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), who said in July 2000:
Mr. Mullin: As I said, this is a serious issue. We are not in the least complacent. First, we have already toughened the guidelines. Secondly, we made available £17 million over the past three years to upgrade legal camping sites, and not a lot happened. In many cases, those sites deteriorated beyond recognition under the previous Administration, and it is a serious problem. We cannot hope to evict illegal travellers unless they have somewhere reasonable to go, so we are making available £17 million to upgrade the 300 or so existing sites. We consider that to be an important precondition for addressing the problem.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I do not accept the tenor of the question, because there are some decent travellers, but I want to raise a specific problem that has arisen in my constituency and elsewhere. Itinerant horses have strayed on to the A13, for example. The local authorities and the police do not have the power to require that the cost of impounding the horses be met by those reclaiming them. Will my hon. Friend consider introducing legislation to ensure that the costs of recovery and custody of the horses are recoverable, or the horses are not returned?
Mr. Mullin: We recognise that there are still many problems, such as the one that my hon. Friend has mentioned. We are in the market for constructive suggestions. We will consider any serious suggestion for improving the enforcement of existing regulations. In most instances, the necessary powers exist. It is a matter of proper enforcement, and there are councils where that has happened.