I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) on the way in which he introduced the Environment Select Committee's report. The moderate and balanced way in which he did so was in the best of the traditions of the Committee. I am afraid that I cannot be as moderate or follow the traditions of my Committee.
My constituency has been subject to a plague of gipsies for about seven years. I call them gipsies, but they are not true Romanies. Possibly some of them are tinkers. They may be itinerant scrap metal merchants, but mostly they seem to be motorised squatters. That is probably the best term that I can use.
When officials of the Department of the Environment were giving evidence to my Committee, we asked them to give the definition of a gipsy under the terms of the legislation. Some years ago, in his report, Professor Wibberley criticised the fact that there was no hard and fast definition by which gipsies and people who were subject to the legislation could be readily identified. The officials' reply was, "People who live a nomadic way of life." I asked, "Does a nomadic way of life involve moving from one illegal site within the London borough of Haringey to another?" There was a shrug of the shoulders and the answer, "Perhaps that is nomadic." That is not an adequate answer and is not a proper way for a Department to address its mind to a very serious social problem.
The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) mentioned the tensions when ordinary residents are faced with such a sudden visitation. In conscience, we cannot allow that to continue, for the sake of either the families who willingly accept or are forced into that way of life or the local communities who suddenly find them in their midst.
I have experienced the problem for several years. I have brought with me several files on the problems that I have had since the most recent general election. Since 1987, I have had within my constituency illegal squatting and trespassing by so-called gipsies at Alexandra palace, Wood Green common, Carlton lodge in Hornsey, Durnsford road lido, King's road car park in Wood Green, Pelham road in Wood Green, Lymington avenue in Wood Green, Russell avenue in Wood Green and Middle lane and Lightfoot road, Hornsey.
They may be the same gipsies who move from site to site or others who come and go. Nobody has been able to identify them except perhaps the travellers liaison officer, appointed by the London borough of Haringey, who directs them from site to site when the heat gets too hot on a site. It is of some interest that the council, which is reluctant to use its powers to remove trespassers from its property, seems to anticipate travellers moving from one site to another, because overnight a water stand pipe and portaloos suddenly appear, and lo and behold they remain there for several months.
As time is short, I do not want to go through the files for each site to show the problems that these visitations create. There is a pattern of filth, of danger to public health and hygiene, of rubble, of litter, of disorder, of children running wild, of a spate of housebreaking and of excrement where one would not expect to find it. One cannot wonder that, as a consequence, the local residents, who are ordinary, decent people, despair because nobody seems to be ready to help them to deal with the problem.
When these people first appear on a site, reference is made to the local police, who are asked whether they will exercise their powers under section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986. The police will not do so and they say that the Act is irrelevant to the problem. They say in their defence, "The Act gives us power of arrest where there is a trespass and those convicted are dealt with by the magistrates, but we have no power under the Act to remove the caravans. If we arrest somebody, we leave behind his wife and children, and who looks after them? When the man in released by the magistrates and returns to the site, what do we do? Do we arrest him for a continuing offence if he refuses to go?" The only answer to that problem must be for the police to have the power—and the willingness to use that power—to remove caravans when they are trespassing on other people's or public property, although that may seem somewhat draconian.
I said that I would not read through all my files and that I would merely give the House an idea of the problems. However, I want to read one letter to the House, which was written to me in March last year. The letter says:
My mother and father are both retired. They live in a very pleasant council flat in Carlton Lodge, Lancaster Road, N4. They have been honest, hardworking people all their lives. Now, at a time when they should be enjoying themselves, their lives are being made miserable.
My father suffers from a bad heart and severe arthritis and his health is getting worse. The reason for this is outside his window. There are ten to twelve gipsy caravans and a number of trucks that have been picking up builders' rubbish and dumping it in the street. The gipsies have been living there for over three months now. The local milkman has stopped delivering milk and supplies to the residents in the flats as goods were being stolen from his van.
I went to visit my parents today because it was my mother's birthday and I just could not believe my eyes. The situation has become a lot worse since the last time I was there. It's obviously making life totally unpleasant for my parents and their neighbours. Apart from the obvious health hazard there must also be a potential fire hazard to the area. I believe that certain steps are being taken to remove the gipsies but if you could speed up the process I am sure it would benefit my father's health.
That seemed to be the end of the letter, but when I turned the page, I found something else written. This is what got me. The letter continued:
The enclosed letter was drafted on Tuesday evening. On Wednesday morning my father had a stroke, followed by a heart attack. He died the following Sunday, Easter Day, at 3.10 am. My mother does not want the funeral procession to start from her own home as she is so ashamed of the state of the place and worried about what might happen to her relatives' cars while they are parked outside.
I cannot say that that letter is typical. Happily, not every constituent has suffered a bereavement as a result of gipsies. However, I have heard of cases of housebreaking and of pensioners who have suddenly found their front doors broken down and youngsters rampaging through the house. The police can do nothing because the old people cannot identify the particular individual, but the community knows where those people have come from even if there is not enough evidence to point the finger at any individual. The neighbours get to know such incidents as the bereavement and when old-age pensioners have had their front doors battered in or others have had their windows broken by half bricks. Some have had excrement deposited in their back garden and others live next door to an empty house that has become a general urinal and toilet for the encampment.
What effect does my hon. Friend the Minister think that all that must have on local residents? Is that a socially desirable situation? Does he think that people will sit down under this year in year out without, at some time or other, a fuse blowing? We shall then have a far more serious problem on our hands. The police say that they cannot act because the Public Order Act is not strong enough. The local authority refuses to act and seems to be encouraging the problem.
I have asked my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to take further powers to do something either when the local authority does not apply for designation—which would give it immediate powers to act—or so that a local authority can be taken to court if it does not exercise those powers once it has obtained designated status. That might answer the problems raised by the hon. Member for Bradford, West. The local authority may be failing in its legal duty to its residents if it does not exercise the power, which designated status has given it, to have caravans removed.
I know from conversations with my hon. Friend the Minister that if Haringey were to apply tomorrow for designated status, it would find that it fulfilled all the criteria and that it would be granted such status. However, time after time, the borough refuses to apply for designated status, so it does not have the powers to take action. It then shuffles off the responsibility to the local police.