|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is the first of the amendments to Clause 65, which ostensibly gives the police additional powers to remove travellers from unauthorised encampments but in fact does nothing of the kind, as I explained when we discussed the matter in Committee. Not one of the 157 local authorities with unauthorised encampments in their area, as at the January ODPM count, had vacant pitches on their official sites that would have been available for the purpose if the Bill had been in operation at the time. As I have just explained, not one of those authorities has any plans for building new residential sites. The total amount of provision over the next few years will be only a small fraction of that which is said to be necessary by the official ODPM report commissioned from Pat Ninier of Birmingham University.
There is a defect in the clause as originally draftedthat it is for the police officer to decide whether a suitable pitch exists. We propose instead that the local authority should be required to certify that a pitch is available before the officer issues a direction in respect of a particular caravan. That would involve not only confirmation of the existence of the vacant pitch but that it was not required for some other purpose. The local authority might require it for refurbishment, or it might be needed for somebody moving on to the site, to whom a commitment had already been made, or the authority might have to make sensitive decisions about the compatibility of those who were to be the subject of the direction with those already living on the official site to which they would move.
We are pleased that the Minister has gone some way towards accepting the argument that we put in Committee that it is for a local authority and not a police officer to assess whether there is a pitch on the relevant caravan site to which the caravans under the control of the persons being directed might move. Amendment No. 110 requires an officer to consult the district and county councils whether there is a suitable pitch for the caravan or caravans on a relevant site. It is unlikely that the officer will issue the direction if he does not get satisfactory assurances. However, we assert that to put the matter beyond doubt, and for the protection of the police from subsequent accusations that the power has been wrongfully exercised, the local authority should be required to certify in writing that it has room on an official site for the persons about to be directed.
We did not use the word "suitable", as in the government amendment, because the local authority would not be able to say that the pitches were for the caravans unless they were in fact suitable. However, we would be happy to add the word if the Government agreed to the spirit of the amendment. Obviously, we hope that the Government will accept our wording for the revised condition. However, whatever the House decides, we believe it to be wrong for the condition in the Bill to be different from the one that exists already in Section 61. I know that we have already covered that, but I have to emphasise that it will be extremely confusing for the police and the travellers to be subject to two different regimes.
The other amendment in the group is Amendment No. 113, which would eliminate the penalty of three months' imprisonment for failure to comply with a Section 65 notice. Will the Minister tell us how many people have been imprisoned for failure to comply with a notice under the 1994 Act? Has there been any follow-up to establish whether the travellers sent to prison under that Act benefited from the experience, and what effect it had on their families? We need that information before we allow further criminal penalties to be levied under the Bill. I beg to move.
Amendment No. 109 returns to an issue that I raised in Committee, but this time the wording is more specific. The intention is to ensure that families are not split up. That is part of our concern about traveller children. The family is part of the support system for children, and splitting up families can be destructive of the welfare of children involved.
The second part of the amendment deals very precisely with the whole matter of the welfare of children. In any intervention involving children, child protection and children's welfare should be the focus of the intervention. A forced eviction is a frightening and disrupting process for any child.
Child protection concerns and the need for good race relations were not dealt with in the response to my amendment in Committee. Yet, in September 2003, the Commission for Racial Equality, writing to the Travellers' Law Reform Coalition, said:
Amendment No. 112 calls for the Deputy Prime Minister, following consultation with the Commission for Racial Equality and other interested parties, to issue guidance to local authorities and the police on the operation of this section of the Bill. That has important implications for race relations. On 4th October 2002, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child noted:
The CRE has also expressed concern at the potential adverse impact on gypsies and travellers of certain sections of the Bill, in particular Part 8, and refers to the statutory duty to have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination. The amendment makes it clear that it is for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which has the lead on gypsies and travellers and unauthorised encampments, to lead on issuing guidance, rather than the Home Office.
The intention of Amendment No. 115 is to extend the defence of children to all children under 18 on site and not merely those travelling with a parent or guardian. I am returning to this amendment on Report because, possibly due to the fact that the Committee was taking place very late at night, my noble friend the Minister did not refer to it. The Bill does provide a defence for children under 18 who are in families. But as I said in Committee, some children may be travelling without a formal guardian and with no parent. That is not uncommon nowadays. As I also said in Committee, these days there are countries, particularly in eastern Europe, where Roma people suffer a great deal of persecution and harassment. Very often they may be asylum seekers who decide to send their children away, out of the way of harassment and persecution. There could very well be children who are taken care of by traveller families.
There are powers under child protection legislation, specifically the Children Act 1989, to address the needs and welfare of all children up to the age of 18. Inclusion of the wording in the Bill which we are seeking to remove would appear to negate the protection otherwise available to children under the age of 18.
I have not referred to Amendments Nos. 113 and 114 which are also in my name because they deal with penalties and they have already been dealt with, I think very effectively, by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I invite my noble friend to accept these amendments which we feel are entirely reasonable in the circumstances we have outlined.
Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, I support government Amendments Nos. 108 and 110 which go far to complying with the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member; but I would also hope that my noble friend the Minister can supplement these by giving consideration to Amendments Nos. 109 and 115. These would prevent the risk of excluding gypsy, Roma and traveller children from the scope of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which other children enjoy.
As for Amendment No. 113, as noble Lords have said in debating Amendment No. 105B, this would be a great improvement in civil liberties. I also commend Amendments Nos. 111 and 112 relating to training and guidance which would help to defuse potentially prejudicial and traumatic situations. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to meet these further concerns.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page