Eighth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 26 June 2002
[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]
Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 103) (HC 948) on 2002-03 Special Grant for Gypsy Sites Refurbishment
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): On a point of order, Mr. Hurst. I do not want to get the Committee off to a bad start, and I welcome the Minister to his new positionI am sure that we will have an excellent working relationshipbut the report was printed on 17 June and yet paragraph 4 refers to
''projects approved by the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions''.
The two Departments were split as long ago as 29 May and it seems pretty sloppy drafting by the Government to refer to a Department that no longer exists. The Minister may say that the official order splitting the two Departments has not been passed by the House. If that is his argument, when will he announce officially when the two Departments will be split, which Ministers will be given which responsibilities and what his Department will now cover?
The Chairman: The record will show what the hon. Member has said and the Minister will have heard him, but that is not a matter for the Chair.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 103) (HC 948) on 2002-03 Special Grant for Gypsy Sites Refurbishment.
If I may pursue that point of order briefly, Mr. Hurst, if the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) read the whole paragraph he would see that it starts:
''Pursuant to section 88B(3)(b) of the 1988 Act, the First Secretary of State hereby determines the following''.
What follows refers to what the previous Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has already approved. It is a matter of historical fact and refers to the past, not the future. The First Secretary is the Deputy Prime Minister.
I am none the less glad to have this opportunity to open the debate on special grant report No. 103. This report, not surprisingly given its title, is about gypsy sites. It will allow for the second year's payment of grant to successful local authorities of our gypsy site refurbishment grant competition. As I am sure hon. Members will know, the special grant that we are debating today is funded from the new money the Government have provided for the support of local
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authority gypsy sites in England. But before I look at the grant and report in more detail, it might be helpful if I set out a little of the background.
Helping to keep gypsy sites available for use is an important part of Government policy to minimise the disruption that can arise from unauthorised encampments. First, we have commissioned comprehensive research to look into the availability, quality and management of gypsy sites. The researchdue to be published later this yearwill look at the current site provision, the demand for it and for other housing provision and how those demands can be met. We see that as a fundamental piece of work, which will provide us with a much improved knowledge base to inform both future spending reviews and policy.
We will also revise our good practice guidance on managing unauthorised camping by gypsies and travellers this summer, following independent reviews by Heriot-Watt and Birmingham universities. We intend the revised good practice guide to be a valuable tool for local authorities, the police, other agencies and, indeed, travellers and the settled community, in formulating and implementing effective strategies, which are so vital in this area. Alongside those two key initiatives, we have the gypsy site refurbishment grant. It is a three-year grant programme in recognition of the importance that the Government attach to keeping the sites in good condition and available for use by gypsies.
The existing network of local authority gypsy sites represents a valuable resource for gypsies. In July 2000 my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), then Minister for Housing and Planning, announced as part of the spending review that £17 million was to be made available to local authorities for the refurbishment of authorised gypsy sites during the next three years. The grant is intended to meet 75 per cent. of refurbishment costs and local authorities are required to fund the remaining 25 per cent. from their own resources. The injection of funding will help local authorities to extend the life of sites, bring them into full use and improve the quality of life for residents.
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Can the Minister tell me what contribution the gypsies who inhabit these sites will make to the refurbishment?
Mr. McNulty: It might have been helpful if the hon. Gentleman had read the order and the background papers. This is the second year of a three-year programme. Unless I am mistaken, 75 per cent. plus 25 per cent. equals 100 per cent. Any further funding from third-party sourcesthe gypsy community, the settled community or anyone elseis therefore nil. The hon. Gentleman's question takes inquisition to the point of fatuity.
Bidding guidance and invitations to bid were sent to all English local authorities in November 2001. By the closing date in January this year, we had received a total of 86 bids from 50 authorities. Evaluation of the bids was undertaken for the Department by PricewaterhouseCoopers and was carried out against
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several key criteria, as set out clearly in the bidding guidance. A total of 57 projects were given approval in March 2002. The successful bids amounted to £6 million, with projects ranging in cost from £4,000 to £580,000.
The schemes range from essential groundwork to improve sewerage through to the reconstruction of sites. Resources are finite, so the grant is awarded on a competitive basis. The Committee will realise that as a matter of hard arithmetic some authorities were bound to be disappointed. However, the gypsy site refurbishment grant is a three-year programme and authorities unsuccessful in round one or two will have a further opportunity to bid in round three. We provide feedback on unsuccessful bids, so local authorities can pick up on issues that they might like to reconsider in order to strengthen their future bids. We shall continue to improve the process for round three, in which a further £8 million grant will be made available for 2003-04.
I come now to the specifics of report No. 103. As I said, it covers the second year of support for the refurbishment of local authority gypsy sites. The precise amount payable to the local authorities for this financial year is listed in the report. Some amounts are substantial: five authorities receive more than £250,000. Annexe A also sets out the manner in which the amount to be paid to each authority will be calculated. Annexe B details the main features of the grant, including the criteria by which the competition bids were judged, and annexe C describes the conditions for the payment of grant, including the requirement for local authorities to provide monitoring reports.
The special grant, which is the subject of report No. 103, represents a variety of bright, workable projects by local authorities throughout the country to refurbish local authority gypsy sites. I am sure that they will prove their worth in years to come, and will encourage other authorities to adopt similar ideas for their sites. I am therefore glad to commend the report to the Committee.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am delighted to catch your eye, Mr. Hurst, and contribute to the debate on special grant report No. 103 on the refurbishment of gypsy sites. We generally view the order as non-controversial. We agree that it is in the best interests and welfare of gypsies that existing local authority gypsy caravan sites are improved to a reasonable standard, which should help to improve access for gypsy children to education and for all gypsies to health care and general welfare services. Fixed gypsy sites help to elevate gypsy welfare as well as deal with the problem of unauthorised camping.
Although the order is generally non-contentious, I should like to raise a few queries about it this afternoon. First, what is a gypsy? I refer the Minister to circular 1/94, which the Department of the Environment issued in 1994. Paragraph 5 states:
'''Gypsies' are defined in section 16 of the 1968 Act''
the defining Act
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''as 'persons of nomadic habit of life, whatever their race or origin'''.
The term ''gypsies'' does not include members of an organised group of show people or circus people who are travelling together as such. Paragraph 6 states:
''Gypsies make up a tiny proportion of the population of England and Wales . . . The gypsy community also includes groups of long-distance travellers who nowadays earn their living mainly from trades such as furniture dealing''.
The circular goes on to tell us that the term ''traveller'' is often used instead, but it amounts to the same thing in this context, as that definition of gypsy is so broad. Will the Minister say whether the definition of the word ''gypsy'' as it appears in the report includes travellers, who are sometimes called new age travellers or tinkers? I understand that gypsies are a particular ethnic minority, and we all want them to be able to continue their way of life freely and unfettered. However, I have reservations about the report if it includes everyone who wants to lead a nomadic life, and if we are to use taxpayers' money to refurbish sites for such people.
Will the Minister also clarify where the sites are based? The circular also states:
''Whilst gypsy sites might be acceptable in some rural locations, the granting of permission must be consistent with agricultural, archaeological, countryside, environmental, and Green Belt policies''.
I should be grateful if the Minister will confirm that all these sites to which he is giving grants comply with that guidance.
I have a list of questions to ask the Minister, which I should be grateful if he could answer this afternoon. If he cannot do so, perhaps he will be kind enough to write to the Committee. Will he say how the number of gypsy caravan sites in a region was taken into account when allocating the grants? As there are bi-annual inspections, he may be able to tell us the total number of sites in England and Wales, how many caravans those sites accommodate in total and by this report, and how many gypsies are covered by the sites in total and by this report.
Is the Minister certain that the grant gives a sufficient number of sites a sufficient status to be able to cater adequately for the needs of gypsies in England and Wales? How can the Government be certain that the grant is at the correct level? Has he carried out any audit on local authority applications, or looked into the amount of grant that will go into administration? How can he be sure that the money will be well spent?
What would the Government's reaction be to a local authority that asked for additional funding? If a local authority gets half way through a particular site and discovers that something has gone wrong and it needs additional funding, will there be a mechanism whereby it can ask for additional funding?
During the 10-year period required by the special grant, what will the mechanism be for inspecting sites to ensure that they are kept up to a reasonable standard? Will the Minister also say something about the sites selected by the measure and the bids from local authorities that were and were not accepted? What criteria were used?
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Given that the report says that gypsies should ''provide sites for themselves''that should be an essential part of the gypsy way of lifethe question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) is relevant. As the Government are encouraging gypsies to provide sites, we are entitled to know how many sites gypsies have provided and whether any numbers or costs are available.
How does the Minister regard unauthorised camping? I know that the report does not cover that; it covers only existing sites.