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Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, I rise to support the objectives of these amendments. In particular, with reference to Amendment No. 105B, it is already a serious matter to criminalise, as the legislation does, an act of trespass which in other circumstances would be a civil tort, although I understand the context. At the least, a fine should be the maximum penalty.
It might be helpful if I first explain how the Government expect the new powers set out in Clauses 65 to 69 to work alongside the existing powers in Section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Where local authorities have provided sites and there is a suitable pitch on that site, the police will have the power to remove trespassers from unauthorised sites under the new powers in Clauses 65 to 69. Where there are no suitable pitches available, the police will be able to use their existing powers, in Section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, to direct trespassers to leave land. These powers can be used only if reasonable steps have been taken on or on behalf of the occupier to ask the trespassers to leave, andI think this is the important elementthe trespassers have caused damage to land or to property on land, used threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour towards the occupier, or have six or more vehicles between them.
Amendment No. 105A would result in the police having to ensure these pre-conditions were satisfied and there was a suitable pitch on a local authority site available for the trespassers. In many areas, that would probably leave the police with no powers at all to evict trespassers from land, even when those trespassers have caused damage to land, have been threatening towards the occupier or, to use the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, have been anti-social. He acknowledged that there were anti-social travellers. The Government believe that this situation would be unacceptable, and I cannot believe that that is ultimately what the noble Lord would wish to happen.
We have recognised the importance of the provision of pitches and transit sites. We established the gypsy sites refurbishment grant in 2001, as we were extremely conscious of the need to keep the network of 324 local authority authorised sites open, available for use and in reasonable condition. To date, £17 million has been competitively allocated to local authorities to upgrade their existing sites and bring unused and under-used pitches back into operation. This year200304the grant has been extended to include funding for temporary sites and emergency stopping places, as well as to continue to refurbish existing sites.
It is hoped that this extension to the grant will persuade local authorities to ensure adequate transit site provision in their areas. In March, we announced that a further £16 million over the next two years will be made availablethat is, £8 million per year in each of the two years.
The Government recognise the concerns and problems with some unauthorised encampments. The Government's aim is to provide the police with an additional power to remove trespassers from land, where local authorities have made adequate site
Amendment No. 105B seeks to remove part of the penalty attached to a failure to comply with a direction so that imprisonment is not an option. The penalties set out in Clause 61(4) for the offence of failing to comply with a direction are the maximum penalties that a court can impose following summary conviction. The options available to a court range, in hierarchical order, from imprisonment, community service orders and fines through to conditional and absolute discharges.
The court is under no obligation to hand out the maximum sentences and may choose any lesser sentence, depending on the circumstances of the case. The noble Lord recognised that the most severe penalty was unlikely to be used. However, the Government believe that imprisonment should be an option for the most serious cases, although we expect that to be a very rare event. There may well be circumstances in which imprisonment is entirely appropriate.
I understand entirely where the noble Lord is coming from; I have great respect for the noble Baronesses who spoke in support of the amendment. However, we think it is right that we pursue this particular course. We think it is right that the police should have this additional power, otherwise I believe that communities will be vulnerable to continued periods of anti-social behaviour and the police will not be well placed to act to prevent that.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baronesses Lady Turner and Lady Whitaker for their support for these amendments. They also have the backing of the all-party group on traveller law reform, the Gypsy Council and other organisations concerned with travellers. I have to tell the Minister that they will be extremely disappointed with his reply.
The Minister has told us that there will be two parallel regimes: under one, the powers of the police under the Bill can be exercised only after they have made inquiries of a local authority to ascertain whether there are any pitches on an official site in the area of the unauthorised encampment to which anybody given a direction under Clause 65 could go. Under the second regime, a power that already exists under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act can be exercised irrespective of whether there is anywhere in the local authority area or anywhere around it for the gypsies to go.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, just so that we have it accurately on the record, Crawley is a district council in west Sussex, not a London borough. I apologise to the noble Lord for not having responded to that particular point.
Of course I understand that there will be difficult and hard cases, and of course it is right that they are fairly considered. However, I think it is wrong to comment on individual cases of this sort in your Lordships' House. I do not know the full circumstances of the case; I obviously take on trust what the noble Lord says. However, I am sure that the local authority, working with the police and perhaps with education services and social services, will have considered the position very carefully. I know from my own experience just how difficult this can be. I had to deal with similar cases when I was leader of a local authority, and they are hard cases indeed.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, this was just one example. Does not the Minister know that this could be paralleled in 157 other local authorities where there are unauthorised encampments? The police are using, with varying degrees of severity, the powers they have under Section 61 of the 1994 Act. To what public purpose are they doing so, when it means that the lives of those families are disrupted and the children are not able to attend school? The problems of the traveller community are being perpetuated into the next generation, to say nothing of the serious health problems which occurred in this particular family and which are by no means unique. I happened to pick the borough of Crawley, but I could have chosen any one of dozens of other authorities throughout the country to cite as an example.
The Minister's claim that the Government are doing something about the problem is unsustainable. What the Government have done, as the noble Lord has explainedwe will come to it, perhaps in more detail, in the next group of amendmentsis to make a small amount of money available under the refurbishment grant for building new transit sites. In 200304, two such sites will be provided, in Darlington and in Lincolnshire. Under that provision, a total of 30 pitches will become available, compared with the 3,000 to 4,500 which have been said to be necessary over the next four years by the Government's own report, commissioned by the ODPM from Pat Ninier of Birmingham University. At that rate, there is not a cat in hell's chance for the provision that the noble Lord mentioned of £8 million a year, which is the same as in 200304. The Minister said that the Government were carrying forward that provision into 200405 and 200506so perhaps another 30 pitches will be provided in each of those years on transit sites, and none whatever in permanent residential sites.
Within the time scale even of the next Parliament, it is impossible for there ever to be a local authority in which the police could legitimately exercise the powers that are conferred on them by this Bill. They will always be falling back on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. I am very disappointed by the Minister's remarks that the powers will exist in parallel and that, wherever there are not sites, the police will continue to use Section 61 of the 1994 Act, regardless of whether there is any provision in the neighbourhood.
It is too late for me to test the opinion of the House, but I can tell the Minister that people will be very upset when they read what he has said. However, in the circumstances at this late hour, I have no option but to withdraw the amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The Deputy Speaker (Lord Lyell): My Lords, I advise the House that Amendment No. 106 is grouped and that if Amendment No. 107 were accepted, I should not be able to call Amendment No. 108.
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