Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 103) (HC 948) on 2002-03 Special Grant for Gypsy Sites Refurbishment

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The Chairman: Order. If the report does not cover the hon. Gentleman's point, it cannot be in order.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My point is tangential to the report, Mr. Hurst. What effect will the provision for refurbishing existing sites have on unauthorised camping? I should be grateful if the Minister would also outline the sort of facilities that will be provided on the sites. Will they be primitive? Will they have running water and sewerage? What level of excellence are we talking about? The Committee has a right to know the standard to which the sites will be raised.

What consultation has the Minister carried out with local communities and gypsies? We all know from our constituencies that gypsy encampments sometimes cause huge local controversy. Therefore, local communities have a right to be heard on these matters. Their concerns should be considered with a view to minimising or eliminating them.

How many under-used or unused sites will be brought back into use under the special grant? Will any be brought back into use in a particular area?

An essential part of gypsy welfare under the Human Rights Act 1998 is consideration of such matters as education, medical facilities, social services and alternative housing. What factors were taken into account in awarding individual grants to local authorities?

Do the Government envisage the scheme continuing beyond 2003-04? What further consultation will they carry out with local authorities and communities to see whether it all the needs of gypsies are being fulfilled or whether, as I suspect will be the case, there are gaps throughout the country?

Finally, are all the sites publicly owned or will some be privately owned but receive a public grant? I am grateful for the Minister's indulgence in considering my questions. I should be even more grateful if he would answer them all.

4.49 pm

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister, not to the Dispatch Box, but to the Committee. He will be relieved to know that my questions are not as extensive as those of the hon. Member for Cotswold. I declare an interest in that I own a camper van, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence). We hope that the definition of a nomadic existence does not apply too widely. I would have more

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sympathy for the amount of public money being spent if there was some evidence that people who choose that existence also chose to pay some tax from time to time.

I draw the Minister's attention to the schedule in annexe A. He will be aware that Berkshire, part of which I represent, is a collection of unitary authorities—for ill or not—and that there are some notable omissions. He will note in annexe A that some £24,000 has been approved for a site in Easthampstead in Bracknell forest, which is near Reading. There is approval for four sites in Oxfordshire, which again is near Reading, and one in Windsor and Maidenhead. There are no proposals for Wokingham or West Berkshire, which are two other semi-rural local authority areas close to the Reading conurbation.

We have a considerable problem with gypsies and travellers and the filth and rubbish that they leave behind. Damage and vandalism also occur, and enforcement action against them taken under public order legislation is undermined unless local authorities can demonstrate a comprehensive provision of alternative accommodation. Sadly, we are not able to do that in Berkshire, so will the Minister instruct his officials to review the provision for Berkshire to ensure that it is treated as well as most of the other counties?

4.51 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hurst, and the Minister to his new position. I served on the Committee that examined the corresponding report last year, when the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) was the responsible Minister. I think that I am the only member of this Committee who was there.

I am pleased that some of the points that were made last year seem to have been taken into consideration. For example, last year we met in November to approve funding that had to be spent by the end of December, and local authorities had already been told that their bids had been approved. They had already committed the money, so there was not much point in the Committee meeting to decide whether to approve the report. The timing is better this year.

I am pleased that we have got rid of the gobbledegook with which the scheme originated, including the ridiculous formula of R=QxT/10. As I said then, it

    ''surely means no more than that one will have to pay back one tenth of the cost per year for periods when the site is not being used by those for which it is intended.''—[Official Report, Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 12 November 2001; c. 14.]

Sure enough, paragraph 9 of annexe C uses such phrasing rather than the formula. Clearly even Opposition Members can sometimes have influence.

There are a couple of serious points. First, the Minister referred to the scheme as a competition. The Liberal Democrats have consistently said that it is wrong for money to be top-sliced and made available for councils that put in bids, because it wastes officer and council resource time if the bids are unsuccessful. That is a principled stand. In practice, it may be that all the authorities that made a bid were successful, so

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will the Minister tell us how many authorities applied and how many were unsuccessful? I hope that the latter answer is none.

Secondly, was the Minister satisfied about the number of authorities that made a bid? As the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) pointed out, the list of successful authorities does not include anything in Berkshire. Many other parts of the country are also missing from that list, while some parts appear several times. Is the Minister satisfied either by the number of authorities that bid or the geographic spread of the bidders? Do the successful bids reflect the demand in the country? I should hate to think that we have encouraged a system in which a few progressive authorities agree to take part and therefore take on full responsibility for nomadic groups of people while others say that they do not want travellers in their back yard and so will leave it up to the others. I should hate it if the system encouraged that, so I hope that the Minister can reassure us on that point.

4.54 pm

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): I wish to raise a few brief points and questions, which may be similar to some that have already been raised. I am interested particularly in the situation in London. Will the Minister tell us whether any boroughs applied but did not receive grants? Does he think that the grants that have been awarded to two London boroughs are sufficient to meet the needs of all the London boroughs? I am also interested in the definition of gypsy. Will he clarify exactly what definition he and his Department use?

4.55 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): I should like to expand on some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), particularly on the nature of the sites for which applications have been made. I am aware from my youth that local authorities have not always welcomed gypsy sites and have had to have their arms twisted before they were constructed. Is there a danger that some local authorities have not bid for sites because they wish to downgrade them to discourage people from using them? Is the Department assessing whether the bids are affected by that consideration?

I take it from the nature of the document and the grants that the grants will go to local authorities but that the Government are encouraging more gypsies to run their own sites. If the scheme is extended at some point, should grants be made available to such sites to ensure that they are of an adequate standard? If we are to increase the provision, that would be one way forward if authorities are reluctant. I am sure that all the planning requirements mentioned by the hon. Member for Cotswold would be addressed. I was worried that he was arguing that planning consent should be revoked for something that has already received it. It would be interesting to explore that argument at some time.

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Finally, if the research shows that there is lack of provision, what is the Government's thinking about an extension of the scheme? What measures does the Minister think are necessary to ensure that more sites are constructed or that the scheme is extended?

4.56 pm

David Winnick (Walsall, North): When the Minister replies, will he comment on my borough of Walsall, which has had some problems in the past. I am pleased to say that one or two sites have been designated. That has at least eased the problem to some extent but, as I am on the Committee, it is appropriate for me to ask, as my hon. Friends have, what the position is. As I said, I hope that the Minister will reply or, if he does not have the information at his fingertips, write to me.

4.57 pm

Mr. McNulty: I shall try to deal with most of the relevant matters that have been raised. If any slip through the net, it is because I choose not to answer them now but will answer in writing.

On the definition, the hon. Member for Cotswold is exactly right. It is in section 16 of the 1968 Act.

David Winnick: We are only just able to hear the Minister.

Mr. McNulty: I have never had that said to me before.

The Act states:

    '''gipsies' means persons of nomadic habit of life, whatever their race or origin, but does not include members of an organised group of travelling showmen, or of persons engaged in travelling circuses, travelling together as such''.

In essence, it covers all travellers but, in practice, certainly for the report, the sites provide for gypsies and Irish travellers.

The definition and many of the other aspects to which hon. Members referred will be clarified, elaborated on or, at the least, alluded to in the key pieces of research that will come to fruition later this summer. In one sense, although it is important to get this out of the way now to allow site provision and refurbishment to continue—as was said, I believe, by the hon. Member for Torbay—in terms of broader policy on gypsies and travellers, we are now about to enter an active period in terms of research, looking at building on the site refurbishment schemes and some of the other provisions suggested by the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Younger-Ross). New guidance on unauthorised encampments of the people referred to will also be announced shortly. There is plenty to come that is germane to the measure. I will touch on some of those things, but stay in order while doing so.

 
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