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Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I rise to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, to which I have put my name. Throughout the discussion on this part of the Bill, we have voiced the concerns of organisationsthe Children's Society, Save the Children, the Gypsy Council and otherswhich have been worried that the provisions in this section of the Bill would have the effect of criminalising Roma and traveller people and rendering more difficult the access of their children to education and healthcare.
During the passage of the Bill the Minister has given certain assurances as to the Government's good intentions. These have been passed on to the organisations concerned. The Government have also introduced a couple of amendments which were designed to deal with some of the worries to which we have given expression.
However, concerns remain. It is generally admitted that there is a shortage of suitable sites, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has said. Some local authorities do not seem to take very seriously the obligation to provide suitable alternative sites. Eviction, with all that that means in terms of disruption and trauma for families and children, must always be a last resort; and removal as a result of negotiation is always much to be preferred. Suitable pitches must be available before people are faced with eviction. That is surely reasonable.
It is also true, and there has been considerable evidence of this, that there is a certain amount of discrimination against Roma and traveller people. There was a report in the newspapers today about harassment, to which Roma people have been suffering, in East Sussex, for example, and the CRE has been moved to say that something should be done about this kind of discrimination.
If people constantly face the possibility of eviction from the sites they occupy, they are bound to feel that this persecution has some effect. Of course, we must do everything we possibly can to prevent that happening.
The Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, the issue of the traveller community has been of concern to this House for some time. There are problems with the provision of facilities for travellers, as the Minister said in Committee on 7th October. So, I welcome the fact that the ODPM's homelessness unit will incorporate the research of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, into its own strategy.
Given the pastoral reality that homelessness among travellers is serious, my concern and my question is whether it is wise to strengthen the powers of the police, as the Bill does, without tying those additional powers into the provision of further facilities. In the
On the other hand, I have no doubt that the Government can and will supply details of the problems caused by illegal trespass. No one can doubt the need for the police to have powers to control such a general nuisance. But, unless there is more of a concerted strategy to provide additional help as well as strengthening police powers, grounds for concern will remain that the enforcement aspect of this issue is taking precedence over the pastoral. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, seeks to tie together these two aspects in a way that I find convincing and I would like to support the amendment.
Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, I also support this practical amendment. It points up the biggest problem about the whole issue: this shortage of permanent and transit sites which constitutes a failure of our local authorities properly to consider what the local needs of all our communities are. This is really indirect and sometimes direct discrimination. I think it engages the Human Rights Act.
I very much agree with the right reverend Prelate. Indeed, when I was a CharterMark assessor, I had the opportunity to visit permanent gypsy sites in the boroughs of Kent which were extremely well maintained and no problem to the local residents.
I add that I am most grateful to my noble friend for copying to me her letter to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, of 10th November on these issues. I express the hope that in preparing the guidance which will be provided, her department will also consult the gypsy, Roma and Sinti communities as well as the Commission for Racial Equality and the Local Authority Associations.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I rise to resist the amendment. In doing so, I want to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, my noble friends Lady Turner and Lady Whitaker and the right reverend Prelate for their contributions, which were most thoughtful. I think that a thoughtful approach is best regarding very difficult issues relating to travellers, gypsies and Roma folk generally. It is not an easy issue. Retreating as it were to my local authority experience, they used to provide the local authority with many headaches and difficult decisions to make. Those difficult decisions were not made any easier when the Caravans Act 1968 was effectively repealed. Speaking personally, it made life much more difficult.
Having said that, I can well understand concerns expressed by voluble residents, certainly in parts of my borough, about poor behaviour and behaviour that was provocative and caused a nuisance. We have to try and strike the right balance. The noble Lord certainly accepts that difficulties have been caused. Other speakers have also accepted that point.
The amendment seeks to add a further condition to the existing power to issue a direction under Section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. I made clear on Report that existing powers can be used only if reasonable steps have been taken by or on behalf of the occupier to ask the trespassers to leave where the trespassers have caused damage to land or to property on land; or have used threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour towards the occupiers; or where the trespassers have six or more vehicles between them.
The amendment would require a direction to direct trespassers to leave land made in those circumstances to include a list of suitable pitches. It certainly does not go so far as does the noble Lord's previous amendment. We do not want the use of those existing powers to be made more difficult, complex and bureaucratic through that additional requirement. 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.
As I said, I appreciate that the amendment does not prevent the police using their powers if there is no suitable site. However, where trespassers have caused damage to land, where they have used threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour, or where they have six or more vehicles between them, it is right that the police can act swiftly to restore the land to its owner. The amendment places additional thresholdsrequirementson the police before they can act. That is not right or appropriate.
In his usual, skilful way, the noble Lord has used this debate to raise broader issues; I can understand why. I certainly share some of the concerns that he and others have raised in this useful mini-debate. But the amendment is not the right way to proceed. It would prevent the authorities being able to act in difficult circumstances in which it is right that they do so to prevent a continuing nuisance.
As for the broader issues, the Niner report is under active consideration. I heard what the noble Lord said about the value of prevarication, but it is under active consideration. There are several alternatives to the proposal to reimpose the duty on local authoritiessuch as further changes to the planning regime. I do not say that that is a definite proposition, but it is certainly a further consideration. There are no immediate proposals to make decisions, but decisions will be made and the view is that come next springperhaps in Aprila firmer line on policy in those matters will be taken.
I can make no promises about the outcome of those further considerations, but there are important issues to be considered and it is accepted that there is a shortage of available sites. My guessmy summationis that it is likely that more money is being spent by local authorities than the grants that have been made available.
That is certainly true if my experience as a local authority leader is anything to go by: we felt obliged to provide for what were described as tolerated sites simply because of the sheer pressure being placed on us
I think that it goes without saying, because it is common sense, that a more coherent, more cohesive strategy is required than has perhaps emerged for some years. That takes some time to sort out; no doubt there will have to be some delicate discussions between the several tiers of local and central government. This is not the Bill that can sort out that problem.
I congratulate the noble Lord on tabling the amendment, sparking this debate and encouraging others to join it, because the issues are important. Doubtless, dealing with some of the issues that travellers, gypsies and other travelling communities can create when rubbing up against settled communities requires careful thought. The Government have taken some important stepsnot least by ensuring that at least some money is available to local authorities to begin important upgrading work and to extend some sites. The noble Lord made some powerful points about expenditure on that. It is not for me to judge, but we recognise that problems exist. No doubt this area of policy will unfold during the next few months.
So I must resist the amendment; it is unhelpful. The clause will help the police and local authorities to tackle abuse where nuisance is properly acknowledged to exist; it is accepted that it should be tackled as we propose. So I am grateful to the noble Lord. I must resist the amendment, but I have listened carefully to the important points that have been made during the debate.
Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, can he answer my point about consultation with gypsy organisations in preparing the guidance?
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