I am very grateful to have the opportunity to raise in the House tonight the subject of the control of itinerants as it is one of major importance not only to my own constituents but to the constituents of many hon. Members. It comes up time and time again in the House.
I am also very grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for being available to reply to this debate. I listened with increasing admiration to the very thorough and comprehensive reply which he gave to the previous debate. I am indeed most grateful to him that after such a magnificent coverage of just about every aspect of the dog problem he should now turn his attention so willingly and readily to a completely different problem. He will, I hope, not suffer from a feeling of déjà vu if I turn briefly to the subject of dogs later in this speech because, unbelievably, since it has come up so often in our deliberations this week, there are also considerable implications concerning the control of dogs and illegal acts connected with them in respect of itinerants.
In looking at the problem of gipsies I should like to look first at the existing state of legislation. I would not dream of proposing any changes to legislation or even of speculating on possible changes since I am quite sure that I could not tack as subtly as my hon. Friend the Minister. But existing legislation is extremely relevant because it is one of the sources of frustration on the part of law-abiding residents who see a situation in which one law appears to apply to the settled population and another to the itinerant population.
I am also fully aware that my hon. Friend the Minister will not be able to respond in any detail to some of the criticisms that I will make, not only of existing legislation but of the way that it is enforced, because this is more properly the concern of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. But, although the Minister will not be able to respond to that part of my speech which strictly concerns planning legislation and enforcement, I hope that he will be able to pass on the concerns that I express to his right hon. Friend. I would ask him if he would deal with the points that I shall be raising on public order, which more nearly concern him.
The problems of public order and the problem of frustration among the law-abiding community would not arise at all if we had a proper system of planning and enforcement and a proper set of planning rules which would make it possible to control the itinerant population.
First, we have to look at the size of the problem. I have attended many debates in which hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised the problem of those who choose an itinerant way of life or who settle for long periods in illegal encampments and move on only when obliged to do so, or for reasons of their own. A count of gipsy caravans was carried out by the environmental health officer in Maidstone—on whose behalf I am largely raising this thorny problem—in January, so it is already out of date. Even then, there were 14 unauthorised caravans in the borough, 11 of which were in my constituency. In all those cases, the borough council was, and is still, taking action to resolve the breach of control. There are in addition 35 caravans in authorised council-operated sites in the borough and 76 caravans on privately operated authorised sites.
Of those authorised council encampments, 21 are at the village of Marden, and a further 14 at Ulcombe. That is a large count for a geographically small constituency. Marden parish council is now updating its figures, together with other parish councils, with a view to being able to assess the problem more accurately. The recent outbreak of illegal encampments at Marden has caused considerable problems of enforcement and public order. Planning enforcement is a lengthy process. Before taking enforcement action, the local authority is encouraged by the Secretary of State to resolve the problem by negotiation or at least to invite planning applications to be submitted. If this does not resolve the problem, an enforcement notice can be issued. Not only is it a long time before the notices can be issued, but if an appeal is exercised, it can easily be several years before the notice becomes effective, even if the appeal is ultimately dismissed.
Residents at Marden will be told that it could be several years before enforcement can be carried out. If my hon. Friend the Minister were to visit Marden to see the incredible situation that has developed, he would not find it easy to say that it is just and right, even if it is normal legal practice, for it to take several years to rectify such a situation.
Stop notice procedure is available where a local planning authority feels that the normal time scale embodied in an enforcement action is unacceptable, but such a procedure is not permissible or applicable in connection with a caravan that is used solely as a place of residence. The normal problems of enforcement action are compounded when dealing with gipsies, simply because Government advice is quite clear: the gipsies who have resided in the local area should receive planning permission unless there are compelling planning objections. Normal policy objections to the development of the countryside that would be applied to non-gipsies are seldom sufficient to resist proposals for gipsy caravans. Parallel action under the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 provides a more expeditious way to deal with the problem in that immediate prosecution for the stationing of the caravan without a site licence is possible, but it seldom provides an effective solution as magistrates will inevitably dismiss a case or impose a minimum fine pending resolution of the planning permission. The will of the police to interfere where there are public order problems at gipsy sites and the will of the magistrates to enforce planning procedures and impose the necessarily deterrent fines are minimal. Therefore, at least part of the planning problem spills over into the responsibilities of my hon. Friend the Minister.
In layman's language, the planning situation is simple. Anybody can encamp himself illegally on any available land. He can then, unbelievable though it is, get himself connected up to local services—electricity and water—and can have his rubbish collected. When the council then tries to evict him, it is faced with a lengthy process of inordinate delay. As a result, resentment builds up in the law-abiding community and this is much intensified where there is continued and blatant bad behaviour, lawlessness and acts of public disorder by the itinerants. In the village of Marden, some of my constituents have been assaulted.
We have a rather romantic view of gipsies. We think of people travelling in a painted caravan, telling fortunes and selling heather. The reality of the people encamped illegally is that they do not use their caravans purely for residential purposes. They are also carrying out a trade, quite often an illegal one, in the area surrounding the encampment. Breaking up of metal, tinkers' business and other such trades are frequently practised. They all cause a great deal of mess, particularly where there are no proper arrangements for disposal of sewage from the caravans or proper rubbish disposal. There is no proper arrangement for disposal of trade waste, which builds up and is extremely detrimental to the environment, particularly to a beautiful part of Kent.
Even where they are not directly responsible for assaults on the population, the behaviour of itinerants is a problem. Dogs and cats regularly disappear from nearby areas to these encampments. My distinguished predecessor, Sir John Wells, lost a pair of much-loved and valuable dogs about a year ago. They were not discovered by the police, who are alleged not to have shown a great deal of interest, nor by any official of the local council calling in to check up on planning procedures, because they do not do much of that. They were seen by a particularly alert constituent, who, walking past the encampment one day, noticed two dogs that were cleaner and fitter not only than the other dogs but the occupants. He decided that a discordant note was being struck and reported the matter to the police. I am pleased to say that the police took action and managed to restore the dogs to their owner. Others are not so lucky.
Thefts of caravans often occur when these people move in, and it is not difficult to make the connection. This causes a great deal of resentment and that is where the question of order and control arises. Itinerancy in our society appears to be rising and more and more designated sites are being made available. There are obviously considerable social arguments about allowing itinerancy to escalate to too great a scale. It is bad for the education of the children of itinerants, which is greatly disrupted. It is bad for good social order because, on the whole, itinerants are resented by the law-abiding population. It is bad for law enforcement, because these people are seen to be blatantly getting away with it, as it were. It is extremely bad in promoting civil obedience in terms of planning orders when it is obvious that one section of the population appears to be especially favourably treated and appears also to be immune from lawful procedures.
Nevertheless, itinerancy is growing, and as it grows so we are having problems of public order and control. We have assaults in Marden. We have assaults elsewhere. We have reported threats in Hunton. We have mess and blatant disregard of the law in Shenley Park. For how long does my hon. Friend the Minister expect the law-abiding and settled population to continue tolerating this behaviour without being led to feel that they must take the law into their own hands or that the law is letting them down so entirely badly that it is not worth obeying and that instead it is worth trying to find some way round it?
I have never yet heard of an illegal encampment being moved on swiftly and legally. The two actions do not go together. If an encampment is to be moved legally, the move will take years before it is completed. If it is to be moved swiftly, assuredly the pressure will not be legal. That is not a happy situation. Indeed, I believe it to be an extremely dangerous one, and one that could develop further. Meanwhile, even if my law-abiding constituents, and my extremely law-abiding villagers of Marden, are prepared patiently to wait for the law to sort out this problem, is it fair that they should have to do so? Surely it is time, even under the existing law, for us to find a way of controlling the menace before it becomes a greater one, when it will no longer be so easy to bring it within the laws that apply to the rest of civilised Britain.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) has made a powerful case for the position of her constituents in Marden. Essentially she has raised two matters. The first is the application of section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986. Secondly, she has raised the more general question of itinerants. I shall deal first with section 39. I think that it will be helpful if I summarise the legislation that is currently in place.
Broadly speaking, if a senior police officer present at the scene has reason to believe that two or more people have entered land as trespassers and are intending to reside there and that the occupier of the land has taken reasonable steps to ask them to leave, he may direct the trespassers to leave the land in any of the following circumstances: where damage has been caused to the property on the land, where the trespassers have used threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards the occupier or his representative, or where—I suspect that this is commonplace in the circumstances described by my hon. Friend—12 or more vehicles have been brought on to the land. For the purposes of this part of the 1986 Act, a caravan is deemed to be a vehicle.
Section 39 was introduced into the 1986 legislation while it was passing through Parliament to provide criminal sanctions against a type of aggravated trespass that landowners suffered in the Stonehenge area at the time of the summer solstice. It has undoubtedly been used by the police when they have been dealing with gipsies. It was not intended to be used against gipsies, but if gipsies fall within the circumstances described in section 39 they can be dealt with under the Act. The Act provides the police with a power but it does not impose a duty. When we come to operational decisions, we are talking about the duties of the chief constable and those of his officers who are accountable to him.
If my hon. Friend's constituents believe that the provisions under section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986 are not being used in the way that she wishes them to be used, they should make representations to the chief constable for a more expeditious use of the powers that currently exist. We intend shortly to undertake a review of a number of sections of the Public Order Act 1986, including section 39, to evaluate how they are working. Inevitably we will consider the remarks which my hon. Friend has made so clearly in this debate. In essence, the legislation in place is sufficient to meet the problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone is troubled by the fact that the police officers concerned do not act sufficiently expeditiously. If she will forgive me saying this, that is an operational matter for the police in her county, rather than for the Home Office.
I accept what my hon. Friend has said. The local police force has made excellent efforts and I in no way want to criticise it. However, the problems which occur happen on the spur of the moment. The police must then come back after some time to sort out exactly what has happened. It is not like a public order offence or a demonstration where there is a static situation. These are isolated incidents which are very difficult to police.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's analysis of the difficulties. She is right. However, I must re-emphasise that there is a distinction between the function of the Home Office and that of the police. We are considering an operational policing matter which is not within the authority of the Home Office. Consequently my hon. Friend must make it plain to her local police officers—and knowing my hon. Friend I rather suspect that she has done this—and in particular to the chief constable, that the matter is a very serious social problem and that the present legislation is appropriate to be used in those circumstances and should be invoked expeditiously.
I accept the point that the policing consequences are difficult in the sense that the incidents are isolated and may give rise to public disorder problems. Therefore, the police face implementation problems. However, that does not alter the fact that it is essentially a policing problem. I am afraid that I do not think that I can usefully go much further than that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone has been very generous to me—quite unusually so perhaps. She recognises my shortcomings in the sense that the broader issues which could have been debated are more particularly matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. She has given me the opportunity, for which I am much indebted, to reply exclusively on section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986. I hope that she does not think that I am discourteous when I say that she might feel that I would not bring a great deal of expert knowledge to bear on the rest of the points that she so helpfully raised. However, I promise that I will ensure that her comments about Marden and her constituents are brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.