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Unauthorised Encampments

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Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): I am pleased to have the opportunity to deal with this subject in an Adjournment debate, but first may I welcome the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), to his first appearance at the Dispatch Box? I am aware of his Irish antecedents, so I apologise to him for securing this debate at the time of the Ireland game. I hope that he will not hold that against me.

I am pursuing the issue because the problems posed by unauthorised encampments are a real concern to my constituents in Harlow, Roydon, Sheering and Nazeing. However, I wish to make it clear that bigoted prejudice against travellers is simply wrong. My criticisms of unauthorised encampments are not criticisms of all travellers, but of that minority that persistently ignore the laws of the land. Everyone should have the right freely and peacefully to live their life in a manner of their choosing. However, as well as rights, in this society we have responsibilities. I simply do not believe that someone has the right to live their life regardless of the consequences for others. Some travellers cause nuisance and vandalism and engage in antisocial behaviour and criminal damage, and that is wholly unacceptable and unjustifiable.

I also wish to make the point strongly that unauthorised encampments and the problems that they bring disproportionately affect my constituency and the areas surrounding it. The Department's last count of unauthorised traveller caravans was undertaken in January this year, and it shows that the eastern region had by far the largest number of unauthorised encampments, with 25 per cent. of the English total. Within the eastern region itself, Essex, within which my constituency comes, had by far the highest total. Indeed, Epping Forest, which part of my Harlow constituency falls within, had the highest number, with a whacking 32 per cent. of all the Essex unauthorised encampments. I do not quote the figures to bore people with statistics, but to try to hammer home the message that the problem disproportionately affects my constituents compared with people in the country as a whole.

Every summer, Harlow is affected by numerous unauthorised encampments that often bring rubbish, antisocial behaviour and crime in their wake. Two summers ago, on Harlow common, we had a 100-caravan illegal encampment, which after much pressing from me and local councillors was removed by the police using section 61 powers under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. However, the clean-up costs to the community, which were borne by the local taxpayer, were a staggering £20,000.

In the three villages that make up the rest of my constituency but that come within Epping Forest district council, matters are, if anything, more serious. As I said, we now have the largest number of unauthorised traveller encampments, with 32 per cent. of the Essex total. In Roydon and Nazeing in particular, it seems as though barely a week goes by without an additional unauthorised encampment. In Hamlet Hill in Roydon, 30 travellers have been encamped illegally since the new year. Residents are rightly concerned

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about the impact on the green belt, local wildlife, the local environment and the security of their properties. In Bumbles Green, a 22-family encampment has been proposed, but it is green belt land and totally unsuitable for development.

Perhaps the worst current example is Payne's lane, where the problem has been going on for a staggering 10 years or more. The land is owned by travellers but has consistently been deemed unsuitable by the planning authority for permanent encampments. When an enforcement notice is issued, the travellers submit another planning application—usually a slightly amended version of the original—and that prevents the enforcement procedure from taking place. Alternatively, after the enforcement notice has been issued, the travellers move off the site for a few months and then return, and the council has to start the whole process over again.

I can give a flavour of what has been happening. An application for a stable block on that site was first submitted to facilitate the travellers' encampment as long ago as 1990. The case went to court, injunctions were served and travellers were brought before the court for contempt. All the while, the unauthorised encampment continued in one form or another and the issue still has not been resolved. Matters were brought to a head in January when the unauthorised encampment increased in size significantly. It is no exaggeration to say that the lives of residents who live in the narrow lane, which is the only access route to the illegal encampment, have been made a misery.

Some residents have been physically assaulted; the travellers have pushed garden refuse and gas cylinders into the flood ditch, forcing local residents to dig a new one; the area has become infested with rats; the travellers regularly bring hardcore to the site in large lorries, which the lane was not designed to accommodate, sometimes in the early hours of the morning, disturbing residents and causing houses to vibrate; and they park on residents' properties and abuse them when asked to remove their vehicles. It genuinely is a living hell.

To give hon. Members a flavour of the situation, I shall quote from a constituent, Mrs. Sally Cooper.

I hope that the Minister will agree with me that people should not have to live like that.

My constituents need to be reassured that the Government recognise the scale of the problem and will act to strengthen enforcement provisions against unauthorised encampments. I would welcome the Minister's confirmation, on the record, that the Government have not weakened the regulatory framework to deter traveller encampments, as some have erroneously suggested.

What more can be done to relieve the misery that my constituents have to suffer? Local councils and the police should make vigorous use of the powers already available to them. In a previous Adjournment debate on the subject, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) argued that the police could use the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 more often

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than they do currently to deal with unauthorised encampments. He argued that section 61 of that Act, which gives the police powers to direct trespassers to vacate the land, could be used when the landowner has taken reasonable steps to ask the trespassers to leave and when trespassers have six or more vehicles on the land. I would welcome the Minister confirming that interpretation of the Act, even if it is done with the caveat that the provisions of the Children Act 1989 and the Human Rights Act 1998 must also be assessed when children are involved. Such an interpretation would greatly clarify the ability of the police to use section 61 to deal speedily with large, unauthorised encampments such as that in Harlow two summers ago. At present, my advice from the local police is that section 61 should not necessarily be considered, even when the number of caravans exceeds six. The Minister's guidance on the issue would thus be helpful.

I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Human Rights Act is a two-way street. Yes, it enforces the human rights of travellers, but it also enforces the human rights of the settled population to have their property protected and to ensure respect for their private and family life. The Human Rights Act does not give anyone, settled resident or traveller, the right to act in an antisocial or criminal manner. I would welcome the Minister making that abundantly clear.

The Porter case, concerning planning enforcement against unauthorised encampments, which went before the Court of Appeal in October 2001, led some police forces and local councils to the erroneous view that the Human Rights Act has blocked effective planning enforcement through the courts. I strongly urge the Minister to confirm that the case hinged on a technicality. The issue before the Court of Appeal was not whether the original court judgment should have been granted, but whether the original judge had properly directed himself in making his judgment. It would greatly help police forces and local authorities if the Minister confirmed that Porter did not establish a hard and fast principle, and that as long as a judge assesses the human rights issues he can still reach a judgment that results in planning enforcement against an unauthorised encampment.

I am convinced that, as well as properly using the powers already available, we must consider further changes to help communities to tackle unauthorised encampments much more quickly and effectively. I shall set out some of the ways in which I believe that can be done.

As I have said, the cost to the community of cleaning up after an unauthorised encampment can be significant: it was a staggering £20,000 two summers ago in Harlow. I simply do not understand why the general public, through their council tax, have to bear that burden. I strongly urge the Government to consider making travellers, or any other trespassers, legally and individually responsible for damage caused during an illegal occupation. Such a penalty would act as a powerful deterrent against the antisocial dumping of rubbish that often accompanies an unauthorised encampment.

Another problem occurs when travellers seek planning permission that is ultimately refused. Planning decisions and enforcement can sometimes take years, and all the while the unauthorised encampment continues. In those

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circumstances, I urge the Minister to allow councils to be granted an injunction coupled with the power of arrest, which would allow the police, with bailiff support, to remove an unauthorised encampment until the planning decision had been determined. Such a change would provide enormous relief to my constituents.

I urge the Government to consider fast tracking planning enforcement decisions that deal with unauthorised encampments. We have been told that the case of Payne's lane has been fast tracked, yet the original problem occurred in January, when the injunction was sought, and the case has gone to the High Court only this week. That does not represent fast tracking in any meaningful sense of the phrase as my constituents and I understand it. Surely there is a case for a specialist court, with a specialist planning judiciary, dedicated to making quicker and tighter decisions on unauthorised encampments.

The court procedures often appear to be abused and drawn out by the lawyers representing travellers to put off enforcement decisions that would otherwise be taken. The history of the Payne's lane site is beset with legalistic ruses that have no intrinsic merit, but serve to string out the court or local authority procedures. One example is planning application forms that are filled in incorrectly or incompletely time after time to delay the process. Surely there should be a limit on the number of times that that is permitted without nullifying the application. I strongly urge my hon. Friend to consider the whole planning and enforcement process, and to introduce changes that stop the legalistic filibustering that is greatly slowing down the legal redress available to my constituents.

In considering the situation, I am tempted to draw the conclusion that if every local authority provided a minimum number of permanent authorised sites, as both Epping Forest and Harlow do, we would not be facing anything like the current scale of the problem. The previous Government made a mistake in 1994, when the statutory duty on local authorities to provide an authorised site was removed. We need to reconsider that issue, and I strongly urge the Government to do so.

Many of my constituents are suffering a living hell because of the actions of some travellers. I do not exaggerate; I have been on sites and seen the impact on their lives. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that he understands the problem, that he shares our concern and that the Government will introduce changes to help my constituents. They desperately need it.

1.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty) : I am grateful for the welcoming comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell), and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. For reasons that most people are aware of, I am a little surprised to be responding to it, but the slot became vacant because of the elevation of my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy). My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow is a lifelong Spurs fan, and I am sure that this is the first time in a long while that anything from Tottenham has made him so happy. The subject is important for many hon. Members, and I shall deal with the serious points that he made.

I am grateful for the fact that my hon. Friend did not criticise all travellers. Clearly, only a minority ignore the law of the land, but that attitude must not prevail.

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Travellers have a right to pursue a nomadic lifestyle, with many gypsies living peaceably next to settled communities. Gypsies and travellers are the largest group among travelling communities in the United Kingdom, and form a recognised minority ethnic group. They also have the same right to access education and welfare as everyone else.

The Government are aware of the settled community's perception of travellers, and we want to dispel such prejudices and enhance toleration of the traveller's way of life. However, that is a two-way process. Travellers are often at the receiving end of bad publicity, some of which is caused by their own behaviour. We have heard reports about the amount of rubbish left behind on sites in Harlow common and Epping Forest, but we should be aware that not all travellers make trouble. That is why I was grateful for my hon. Friend's opening remarks.

Travellers excite much prejudice, but it is often ill-founded and based on knee-jerk reactions. None the less, local communities and the Government can and should expect the standard of behaviour of travellers to be the same as that of the settled community. Any antisocial behaviour must be dealt with in the same way for both communities.

The Government are fully aware that nuisance and disorder at some sites, especially unauthorised encampments on local authority or privately owned land, cause misery and distress. The typical consequences of unauthorised encampments include unacceptable behaviour, sometimes of a criminal nature, and a lack of respect for other people's property, the general environment and the amenities and quality of life of surrounding residents—not least those eloquently described by my hon. Friend when he talked of the residents of Payne's lane. He and the resident he quoted are entirely right that no one should have to live like that.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister receives a huge postbag from hon. Members, local authorities and the settled and business communities regarding unauthorised encampments by travellers. The Department has responsibility with the local authority to manage unauthorised camping, and Ministers in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Office work closely together to ensure that any criminal activity is dealt with.

The police and local authorities have powers under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to direct travellers to leave land if they are camped without consent. The police can use their powers under section 61 of that Act. If reasonable efforts have been made to ask travellers to leave an unauthorised site and they have refused, the senior police officer present may direct them to leave if certain statutory conditions have been fulfilled. Travellers must have been abusive to the landowner or his or her agent, caused damage or brought six or more vehicles on the land. The powers do not apply to land forming part of a highway.

Mr. Rammell : Can my hon. Friend make it clear that it is necessary for only one of those criteria to apply, not all three of them?

Mr. McNulty : That is the situation, as far as I know. I shall inform my hon. Friend if I am wrong.

The decision to use section 61 remains an operational matter for the senior police officer on the ground, but Home Office Ministers have made it clear that police powers should be used at an early stage, where necessary.

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As part of any decent society, even within the context of unauthorised camping, an effective strategy must also address the welfare and educational needs of travellers and their children. In exchange for better site provision, travellers must respect the settled community. When using the services provided, travellers should leave sites clean and tidy and adhere to acceptable standards of behaviour.

The new Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is working closely with other Departments to develop our policies and initiatives. My hon. Friend spoke about stronger eviction powers and enforcement. The ODPM is working jointly with the Home Office to produce new guidance on managing unauthorised camping, with a view to publishing it later in the year. That new guidance will be informed by the view of stakeholders from the settled, business, farming and travelling communities. It will emphasise the need for effective local strategies that clearly set out lead responsibilities for taking action between local authorities and the police.

The guidance will also emphasise that the same standards of behaviour and regard for the law are expected from all sectors of the community, including regard for public health, proper disposal of waste and the conduct of business activities. However, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has policy responsibility for waste management, and subjects such as fly tipping and pollution come under the purview of the Environment Agency. Under section 59 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, the Environment Agency has powers to remove fly-tipped waste, and to recover costs from those who deposited it or knowingly allowed it to be illegally dumped.

It is a criminal offence to dispose of waste without a waste management licence, or outside the terms of a registered exemption from licensing. That offence can be subject to severe penalties, including an unlimited fine or imprisonment for up to two years. The Government will evaluate the effectiveness of the new guidance in making improvements on the ground, and will continue to keep the scope and application of existing powers under review. The guidance will inform much of what we do following its publication in the summer.

The ODPM is also researching site provision, again with a view to publication in the summer. That research—being carried out by Birmingham university—is considering the availability, quality and management of sites, detailed information about site closures and pitch losses, and actual site provision, which includes what sites exist, the need for sites and how demand can be met. The Government will take that into account when considering future policy and spending considerations, and will review the adequacy of existing enforcement powers in the area. With the guidance, the research on sites and other enforcement powers, much is being done to evaluate the existing position and to reach a stage at which the people of Harlow and Epping Forest are not encumbered in this way.

Furthermore, the ODPM's site refurbishment programme aims to keep the existing network of more than 300 local authority sites in good repair and available for use. That programme is making £17 million available between 2001–02 and 2003–04. In those three years, we shall spend £3 million, £6 million and £8 million. Round one has already taken place, with 38 bids approved

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totalling almost £4 million. The bidding guidance for round two, which will apply to 2002–03, was issued to local authorities on 15 October.

The ODPM received a total of 86 bids from 50 local authorities. The results were announced on 20 March, with a total of 57 successful bids amounting to £8.1 million. The site refurbishment grant meets 75 per cent. of the costs, and the unsuccessful local authorities received evaluation feedback. My hon. Friend will know that the Elizabeth way site in his constituency successfully secured £15,400 for fencing work.

It is important to note that such work and the measures we are taking with the Home Office will inform us far more about the way forward on unauthorised encampments. With those initiatives in place, I am sure that hon. Members will recognise that the Government are actively seeking ways to enable local agencies to manage the problem effectively.

As my hon. Friend suggested, the problem is one of balance. Rights and responsibilities are important. The people who dwell on unauthorised encampments should tolerate and respect the settled communities around them. He is also right to suggest that the legal and regulatory framework remains the same as it was under the previous Government, and has been the same for some time. I am more than happy to put that on the record.

It is a matter of real regret that some unscrupulous politicians seek to abuse and exploit this issue for their own ends. They should work with us and with local councils to resolve the problem of competing interests to the satisfaction of the travellers and of the settled community. We suggest that there are rights and responsibilities on both sides.

My hon. Friend mentioned in passing the case of Porter v. South Buckinghamshire district council, and suggested that the conclusion drawn by some people that the Human Rights Act 1998 means that enforcement can no longer prevail on unauthorised encampments was erroneous. He was absolutely right. I understand that that case revolved entirely around the judge's competence in a particular area to direct himself to a conclusion, and concerned merely that legal technicality. It has no impact on the planning jurisdiction, which prevails as before.

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I exhort those who feel that the erroneous conclusion arising from that case is accurate to re-examine the matter, and to get in touch with my office to receive the same advice that I have been given. As I understand it, the case does not alter the planning jurisdiction with regard to enforcement.

This is an issue of real concern that warrants serious debate. The ODPM site research programme is important, because any solution to the problem must revolve around the issue of sites. I do not concur with my hon. Friend that the 1994 statutory obligation of all authorities to have a site for this purpose should be restored. However, we now have the site research programme, the new guidance to be issued jointly with the Home Office on unauthorised camping and the site refurbishment programme for the existing 300 sites. All those elements will better inform us of the need for any changes in the way that central and local government deal with the issue.

I end where my hon. Friend began. We need to get to a stage where residents such as those in Payne's lane, Roydon, Nazeing, Hamlet Hill and Bumbles Green—all the areas that he mentioned in his constituency—do not have to live that way and be encumbered, put upon and disrespected because of unauthorised campsites.

I thank my hon. Friend for his thoughtful comments. I assure him that as and when events unfold, which will be before the summer and therefore sooner rather than later, I will keep him fully apprised of any new developments in the area following on from our work on site provision, research and the new guidance. The issue is serious but if it is dealt with fairly and in a balanced fashion those on both sides—whether from the settled or the travelling community—should be able both to enjoy their rights and to be apprised of and live up to their responsibilities.

I am grateful that my hon. Friend said clearly at the beginning of his speech that it was not intended as a criticism of all travellers, but merely of a small minority. Much of our enforcement and other powers will be directed at that minority, especially those on unauthorised encampments. For the majority, research into site provision, the provision of further sites and the maintenance of existing sites remain paramount, so that the settled and the travelling communities can live together and respect fully each other's rights and responsibilities.

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