Gipsy Sites

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:11 pm on 10th July 1990.

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Photo of Mr Anthony Coombs Mr Anthony Coombs , Wyre Forest 9:11 pm, 10th July 1990


There are also uncertainties in respect of the powers available to the police under the Public Order Act 1986, although I hope that the Home Department will deal with that problem later this year.

Most importantly, a demand-led policy leads to catch 22: the more virtuous the local authority, the more gipsies come to its area—the honey-pot effect—so the further away designation recedes.

All these problems are exacerbated by the fact that one is dealing with a mobile and undefined population. The National Gypsy Council correctly says that, to deal with the problem in the short or medium term, we must come up with some definition of a gipsy.

This is an intractable problem, not helped by the fact that the legislative framework within which we try to deal with it is weak and diffuse.

The third problem stemming from the legislative framework is that it provides the ultimate opportunity for buck-passing. The Government do the designations; the county council decides where sites go within the county area; then the district council faces the administrative and operational problems of carrying out the policy. Small wonder, then, that Hereford and Worcester county council has not achieved designation, despite trying to for 18 years.

I suggest a number of answers. First, we have suffered because we have taken an unduly paternalistic and public-sector approach to the provision of sites for gipsies.

The National Gypsy Council should be given far more responsibilities for site management and negotiating site acquisitions. That would lead to sites that had been authorised by the National Gypsy Council. It would provide competition for public sector sites.

There is great merit in the National Gypsy Council's suggestion that, if we are to tackle the problem meaningfully and decisively, there should be a national gipsy commission to find sites, and which could also be used as a conduit for either central Government or housing association funding. The Commission would have a role to play in site improvement. It would provide greater impetus for tackling the problem.

We need a better definition of "gipsy". I like the National Gypsy Council's suggestion that it should be persons of a nomadic tradition of life. The council believes that a gipsy ought to be able to show that he has followed a nomadic tradition of life for at least two generations before he can call himself a gipsy. By that means, we should be able to cap the potential demand, given the normal demographic and family group factors, for gipsy facilities.

We must also rationalise the operational responsibilities for gipsies. I do not mind whether that is at district or county council level. I should prefer the county council to have the responsibility for both identifying and operating gipsy sites. It would overcome the problem of a local councillor who votes against anything, come what may, because it would affect his own patch. If the matter were dealt with at county council level, it would be administratively simpler and more objective.

In order to get away from the demand-led provision of sites for those who reside in or resort to an area, there ought to be another defence. There is a far greater number of caravan sites than the population justifies in my area. The administrative body ought to be able to say that, if the "resort or reside" demand-led policy is strictly adopted, it would have to provide far more caravan sites than is justified on a strict pro rata population basis. That ought not to happen.

I agree with those hon. Members who have said that tougher enforcement powers following designation, provided that we can speed up the number of permanent gipsy sites by the means that I have suggested, are vital. Enforcement powers should be available, not just for gipsies who happen to be in an area where they are unauthorised and who thereby are causing a nuisance. If we gave the National Gypsy Council more responsibility for the management of both its own and council sites, there would be stricter enforcement powers for sites that are not properly managed. Bad management of sites causes many of the problems of which residents complain.

It is a difficult problem. The Minister has to deal with the problem virtually at third hand through the county and district councils. I do not envy the Minister's task. That applies irrespective of the political colour of the Government. The law needs to be reformed. I hope that the Government will consider my proposals seriously.