I welcome this debate on an important and politically sensitive subject, which has been pushed to the margins of local and central government for far too long. The issue may be prominent for lawyers and theorists, but too often in practice, deeds have fallen far short of intentions.
As so many hon. Members have done, I could also spend 10 minutes expounding the problems that gipsies cause. My constituency is a traditional area for gipsies, and they cause some problems, but a large proportion of them are law-abiding citizens, who keep their caravans well and make a genuine contribution to the communities in which they live.
There are problems, but they have been caused by lack of firm Government policy and a legislative framework which is too diffuse—reactive rather than proactive—and which pushes gipsy problems on to local councils, which are not best placed to deal with them because of political sensitivities.
I come from a county that is identified in the Select Committee report as one of the laggards. Hereford and Worcester county council is said to be performing badly, despite the fact that it has 157 council and 70 private sites—more than any other county in the east or west midlands.
In the Wyre Forest, at Stourport, we have provision for 56 caravans—the largest provision in the best-providing county. Despite that, we cannot achieve designation. To be fair, the county council has tried for it, and that has produced some justifiable resentment. Moreover, the Hereford and Worcester county council has 550 out of 1,406 caravans—a far greater number than the national average—on unauthorised encampments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor) said, the national problem is not likely to improve much, and it may well get worse.
The number of caravans is rising all the time: in 1978 there were 8,520; by 1990 that had increased to 11,544—and we have not even taken into account the factor that the National Gypsy Council mentioned in its latest report, which is the increasing numbers of European travellers who are likely to come here after 1992.
Although there has been some progress in getting more people on to authorised sites, the evidence given to the Select Committee by Mr. Dudding—I feel sorry for him, having heard the drubbing that he has been given—shows that it will take 25 years to clear the backlog and put gipsies on authorised sites, in the process tackling what Mr. Dudding called an intractable problem. Once we have put the gipsies on authorised sites, we must get the sites and amenities up to a reasonable standard.
Three major problems emerge: first, the political insensitivities that surround the issue. Too often, because there are no significant planning guidelines for the allocation of gipsy sites, public inquiries are called for. If an authority wants to set up a new—permanent or temporary—authorised gipsy encampment and has to hold a public inquiry for each one, we shall never make the sort of progress that we need to make to eliminate the problem even within 25 years.
Secondly, the Caravan Sites Act 1968, which I understand was a private Member's measure, was remarkable in that it looked at policy in a wholly demand-led fashion. Because of that, there is never any certainty about whether there will be designation. My county council thought that it would get designation and was told that it would, but having counted the numbers six months later, it discovered that the figures on the basis of which it was trying to get designation were out of date, so none was forthcoming—