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The noble Baroness said: In moving the amendment, I shall speak also to the other amendments tabled in my name, Amendments Nos. 202, 203, 204 and 205. I want to register the apologies of my noble friend Lord Wedderburn of Charlton, who added his name to the amendments but unfortunately is unable to be here.
I agreed to sponsor the amendments as a result of an approach by the Children's Society. I was a council member of Save the Children for some years, which also supports the amendments. I remember that when I was a council member of the society, we were often concerned about the effect on children of the lack of suitable sites for travellers. We were worried about whether they would have access to education and adequate healthcare.
Nowadays, there are added reasons for concern. Since the rapid transition in middle and eastern Europe from command economies to the free market, there has often been a breakdown in the structure that previously existed. In some cases, that has led to the emergence of a particularly unpleasant kind of racism, often allied to criminal activities. Roma people have suffered harassment and sometimes direct persecution as a result. That appears to be true of Slovakia, and of Kosovo, where Roma people have suffered ethnic cleansing at the hands of the victorious KLA.
In Britain, we pride ourselves on being an open and tolerant society, but I wonder whether that tolerance is being extended to our own Roma and traveller people. According to the briefing that I have received from the Gypsy Council, that view of Britain as a tolerant society is doubted by many traveller families. It points to the inadequacy of gypsy/traveller sites. Between 4,000 and 4,500 extra pitches are needed in England alone. Clause 8 of the Bill will not produce any more sites. The council believes that Clause 8 indicates that the Government see gypsies not as part of the community but as a criminal element. There is a real fear that one of the unstated reasons for Clause 8 is to give the Government an excuse forcibly to remove the children and have them brought up as non-gypsies, either in care or in fostering. I do not believe that that is the Government's intention, but the fear really exists.
The object of Amendment No. 201 is to secure assurance that the powers will not be used to send members of the same family to different sites. Families may be travelling in more than one vehicle, and the use of the new powers in a way that splits up families carries with it the risk of breaching Article 8 of the ECHR, the right to privacy and family life. Traveller families, including ethnic Roma and Irish traveller families, may live and travel together in extended family groups. Relationships may be integral to the family, and frequently provide support for the children. The risk of interference with family life could come at a time when children are already distressed by forced eviction. The trauma can only be increased if there are splits in the family as well.
If the Government do not see fit to accept the amendment, will the Minister assure the Committee that efforts will always be made to ensure that those on the same unauthorised encampment will be offered places on a single site, and that guidance will be issued to the effect that where a family travels in more than one vehicle the powers will not be used to send different vehicles to different sites?
The purpose of Amendment No. 202 is to obtain assurances that the powers in Clause 8 can be used only when there is not merely a possibility of a place on a relevant caravan site, but a place that will in practice be made available to the vehicle and those living in it. Also, it would ensure that they were informed of that, and that the power did not interfere with the rights of travellers, including children, nor with local authorities' site allocation policies.
As matters stand, it is unclear how the new powers will be reconciled with local authority allocation policies. What if the pitch is not suitable for the family in question? Some sites may simply not be suitable for school-age children. They cannot be too far away from access to schools and healthcare, for example. Under the amendment, there has to be a place on a named site, and it has to be confirmed that the vehicle and its inhabitants will be welcomed on that site. The pitch must be guaranteed for at least three months if those moved require it for that time, and notification of the availability of the pitch on a named site must be in writing. Amendment No. 204 approaches the problem in a slightly different way and is after the same objective. It is a kind of alternative.
The purpose of Amendment No. 203 is to ensure that decisions to use powers in this section are taken by an officer of sufficient seniority. Child protection concerns may arise in the course of a forced eviction and it is important that people with skills and experience to identify those are present and act upon the concerns.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has expressed concerns about Part 8, which it says could give rise to a significant risk of incompatibility with convention rights. The police officer, in exercising these powers, must have had training on the Human Rights Act, the Race Relations Act and the Children Act.
Finally, the purpose of Amendment No. 205 is to extend the defence of all children under 18 on site and not merely to those residing with a parent or guardian. Protection should be extended to all children. There may be disputes about whether the person over 18 who is with the child is indeed in the role of a guardian. There may be children travelling alonenot uncommon nowadays. The clause as it stands would allow under-18s to be arrested without a warrant and possibly to spend up to three months in prison. That is surely unacceptable and I cannot believe that it is what the Government really intend. I beg to move.
Lord Avebury: The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, made a powerful speech in moving the amendment and explained the context within which the Committee is being asked to consider it. She might have added that the Government brought this whole part forward at a late stage in the proceedings in another place. It was therefore impossible for honourable Members to debate it, let alone to obtain the kind of advice which the noble Baroness quoted, and to examine the implications.
In a nutshell, Clause 61 provides that where the occupiers of land ask the police to remove travellers, the police are to have a new power to direct them to leave and to remove their caravans and vehicles from the land if it appears to the senior police officer present that there is a pitch on a local authority site in the district or borough for the travellers to go to. But as the noble Baroness said, the Government are not going to provide any extra incentives for local authorities to provide sites and, as we have heard, there is a severe nation-wide shortage of legal places where travellers can stop. The assumption behind the proposal that there are some districts or boroughs where empty places are available on official sites, while at the same time travellers are camping unlawfully somewhere else in the vicinity, is manifestly false and there is no possibility that it could become true in the foreseeable future.
Counts are made every January of the number of traveller caravans on local authority and private sites and the number camping on unauthorised sites. These figures are published by the ODPM. When the Tory government repealed the duty of local authorities to provide sufficient accommodation for gypsies residing in or resorting to their area, and cancelled the 100 per cent grant which had been made available for that purpose, the burden of providing somewhere to live for travellers fell entirely on the private sector. For a while, the effects were masked because there were still some local authority sites in the pipeline and because in the years 199596 and 19992000 there were falls in the total number of traveller caravans, perhaps as a result of travellers moving into settled accommodation. That must be speculation, because the Government never bothered to ask the local authorities to record transfers to and from settled dwellings, though it would be simple
During August and the beginning of September this year I conducted a survey of the 157 local authorities in England where there were unauthorised traveller encampments in January 2003 to see what they were saying in their homelessness strategies about travellers. I found that five of the 157 authorities had not yet published their strategies more than a month after the statutory deadline allowed for in the Homelessness Act, in spite of the fact that a whole 12 months was allowed in the Act for the homelessness survey and the production of the strategy.
Of the remaining 152 authorities, 61 had no link to a page dealing with homelessness in the A to Z services finder on their website; 101, or nearly two-thirds, had not put their homelessness strategies on their website; and 107, or more than 70 per cent, did not even mention travellers. I found that most officials dealing with homelessness were unaware of their council's strategy and did not have a copy of it. In almost every telephone conversation that I had with these local authorities, where the person who wrote the strategy was out or on leave, no one else had access to it.
Hardly any of the strategies referred to the local authority's race equality statement or to the Race Relations Acts, which impose a duty on all authorities to ensure that, in the delivery of their services, they promote racial equality. Not one of them mentioned the advice from the CRE in their Ethnic Monitoring: a guide for public authorities, which recommends that local authorities introduce new categories where they wish to know how their services affect an important minority not covered by the census. One authority did comment on the omission of travellers from the census classification. But those which did have regard to the ethnic composition of their population relied almost entirely on the census categories, and only a handful acknowledged gypsies as an important minority in their own area.
Not one of the 157 local authorities in the survey said that they would deal with the unauthorised encampments in their area by offering trespassers places on official sites for the very simple reason that there were no such places to offer. It is a cruel deception for the Government to pretend that any local authority has spare capacity on official sites or that any of them are likely to be able to provide spaces in the future when none is planning new residential sites and none has done so since 1994.
It is true that small amounts of money are provided by the Government out of the refurbishment grant money for transit sites, and this year two projects have been approved: one in Darlington for 10 places and one in Lincolnshire for 20. Those 30 places should be compared with the figure of 1,000 transit pitches
With no spare capacity, the only way that the requirement of this clause might be satisfied is where a pitch is temporarily out of use for some reason and is treated as being "for that caravan", in the words of the new clausea term which is left dangerously undefined. Amendment No. 204 at least makes it clear that the decision on whether a pitch is available rests with the local authority rather than with the senior police officer who delivers the notice directing the travellers to leave the site.
In making the decision, the authority would be able to say that the rare vacant pitch was not "for that caravan" for any one of a number of reasons of which the police officer may well have no knowledge: the pitch might be scheduled for refurbishment; it might be let to someone who was temporarily absent; or it might have been allocated to someone elsefor example, the relative of an existing licensee.
The "senior police officer" who has to make these tricky judgments under the clause as it stands may be a police constable straight out of training college. Clearly, it is wrong to leave it to chance whether the officer has adequate training and experience for the purpose. Amendment No. 203 corrects that by providing that the senior officer must be at least of the rank of chief inspector.
If, as we on these Benches say, it is extremely unlikely that there will ever be a suitable pitch on a public site ready and waiting for a single caravan directed to move from an unauthorised site, it would be positively miraculous if several pitches were available for caravans in a group, as they normally are. Hard as it is to treat such an extreme case seriously, we have to say that if it ever should occur, it would be totally unacceptable to us that families should be split up and sent to different sites. The Commission for Racial Equality, which has written to Andrew Ryder of the Traveller Law Reform Coalition supporting all these amendments, particularly emphasises the need to ensure that families remain together. Frankly, I do not trust a government who can propose a clause like this to deal with the matter in guidance so that any risk of incompatibility with the Human Rights Act, to which the noble Baroness has referred, will be avoided. That is the purpose of Amendment No. 201.
Finally, in Amendment 202 we are seeking to ensure that when the direction is given to leave the land and to remove the vehicles, it gives the recipient, as the noble Baroness has explained, details of the relevant site where he or she is being offered accommodation, which is to be for not less than three months. I believe that that should be a minimum.
This clause is a shabby and deceptive little piece of theatre, designed no doubt to placate those who complain about unauthorised encampments in their neighbourhood. Residents may have good reason to protest about the nuisance that arises when there is an influx of people without any facilities for refuse collection services or sanitation, but their anger should be directed against the Government, who have failed to make adequate provision for travellers, and against the Tories, who repealed the 1968 Act. I would really prefer that the whole of Part 8 be withdrawn, and that the Government should come forward with comprehensive proposals for ending the homelessness of 3,000 travellers. If that is not on offer, these amendments are the least we can demand to mitigate the evil effects of Clause 61.
Lord Dixon-Smith: Three of my amendments are in this group: Amendments Nos. 201A, 202A and 202B. I do not intend to dwell on them. I have checked Amendment No. 201A and I do not believe that it is good English in the context of the Bill, so it may be best for me to correct it for another occasion.
The other two amendments are intended to introduce some greater degree of flexibility in handling the situation. I have some sympathy with gypsies who live in caravans because the development of modern society has so dramatically changed the nature of the countryside. The places where they used to be able to stay no longer exist. I do not wholly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and his remarks because there are placesI can think of one close to where I livewhere gypsies have bought and created a successful site on their own. After heaven knows how many years the site near me still does not have planning permission. The local authority tolerates it without planning permission rather than dealing with a breach of its own planning regulations because it is a benefit and as a result it does not have to deal with the problem of a site for the gypsies. That may seem cynical but it is also realistic.
That is a fortunate situation, but there are other situations where gypsies have settled in most unfortunate places and have caused gross public offence. That is a matter that we shall turn to on another occasion. I do not intend to say any more now, other than that these amendments are probing amendments.
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