Gypsies and Travellers — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:59 pm on 6th March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat 2:59 pm, 6th March 2012

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the communication from the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe on the adequacy of the provision of accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government replied to the letter from the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe on 27 February. A copy was placed on the Council of Europe's website on 1 March. The Secretary of State's letter gave details of the measures the Government are taking to improve the situation of Travellers, particularly in relation to the provision of sites.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

My Lords, my noble friend may be aware that local authorities are intending to provide planning permission for less than half of the accommodation that was shown to be necessary in the comprehensive assessment of need conducted during the previous Parliament. First, what immediate action are the Government going to take to increase the number of sites in order to match their legal obligation as identified by the high commissioner to provide adequate housing for Gypsies and Travellers? Secondly, have any of the local authorities and social housing agencies to which the Government recently granted a total of £47 million to build new sites identified the land they intend to use for this purpose, let alone applied for planning permission on it?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, my noble friend's question on whether local authorities have identified the land suitable for pitches is a matter for them. If I have any further information that I can give him, of course I will do so. In response to the most important question put by my noble friend, the new homes bonus will match fund the additional council tax raised for new homes, including Traveller pitches, for the next six years. Traveller pitches are usually rated as band A so at present local authorities will get a bonus of £959 per year for six years for each new pitch. Traveller pitches owned by local authorities and housing associations will attract an additional £350 per year enhanced bonus, like other affordable homes.

Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour

My Lords, one of the key points made by Dr Hammarberg in his letter to Mr Pickles was about the "significant hurdle" concerning the requirement that for planning permission, the applicant has to establish "Gypsy status" and demonstrate particular "working patterns". Will the Government now dissociate the granting of planning permission from these inappropriate and restrictive criteria?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, the Government will publish the national planning policy framework by the end of this month, and shortly we will announce our conclusions resulting from all the consultations we have held related to Travellers.

Photo of Lord Laming Lord Laming Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Gypsy way of life is extremely hard and that the best hope for them and, indeed, for society as a whole is the provision of sufficient official pitches so that the children-the next generation-can receive a proper education and thereby have an alternative lifestyle available to them?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord's point.

Photo of Lord Hamilton of Epsom Lord Hamilton of Epsom Conservative

Does my noble friend not agree that there is a serious problem here in that as local authorities provide pitches for Gypsies and Travellers, the number of Gypsies and Travellers increases, so we are always behind the curve? Is there not a problem here if we go on providing pitches and the demand continues to increase?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, there are some who think that; it may be the case or it may not. Our duty is to meet the need and we are doing that by means of the new homes bonus and other incentives to deal with the problem identified by my noble friend.

Photo of The Bishop of Exeter The Bishop of Exeter Bishop

My Lords, would it not be helpful for the Secretary of State to meet directly with representatives of the Gypsy and Traveller community to discuss with them the issues raised by the Commissioner, and together with them develop measures to deal with those problems? Further, can he say whether the Secretary of State does have such plans?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I would be very surprised if the appropriate Minister does not have discussions with the relevant organisations.

Photo of Lord Elystan-Morgan Lord Elystan-Morgan Crossbench

My Lords, is the Minister aware that about a quarter of a century ago a very distinguished High Court judge, the late Mr Justice Peter Pain, when hearing an application from a local authority in south Wales for an injunction to clear Gypsies from a lay-by said, "I will not grant this injunction because an injunction is an equitable remedy. To claim an equitable remedy you must be equitable. I will only grant the injunction to those local authorities which can show that they have taken seriously their statutory obligations in relation to Gypsies".?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important and interesting point. It is much easier to have an unauthorised encampment removed if the local authority has already made appropriate provision.

Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Labour

My Lords, as the Minister has acknowledged, there is a shortage of adequate permanent and transit sites for Gypsies and Travellers, but, at the same time, the Government are dismantling regional spatial strategies, one of the objectives of which was to set targets concerning the number of pitches that each local authority should provide. What evidence do the Government have which suggests that the replacement duty to co-operate will better encourage local authorities to meet their own and their neighbours' responsibilities?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, as I have said, we have not seen the full government policy because that will be announced shortly. The previous Government's model of top-down pitch targets under regional strategies has not delivered. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of caravans on unauthorised developments increased from 728 to 3,895.

Photo of Baroness Sharples Baroness Sharples Conservative

If they are Travellers, why do they not travel rather than getting settled in one spot?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, some Travellers are static, partly because there are not the opportunities around the country and their patterns of work are changing. It would be better in those circumstances if they remained static so that their children could be properly educated, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Laming.