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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:33 pm on 10th July 1990.

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Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:33 pm, 10th July 1990

For the most part, this has been an appropriately civilised debate. Subjects that could have been dealt with emotively because of local difficulties that right hon. and hon. Members experience were dealt with sensitively, and the House and those who take an interest in the subject will be grateful for that.

The Minister must be the most unenvied hon. Member and probably the most unenvied Minister of any Department. Almost every hon. Member said that they did not envy his task. Given some of the other responsibilities that have been part of his portfolio in the past few months, I can understand that he is far from envied, and perhaps justifiably so.

I am a former member of the Select Committee on the Environment. The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) presented a typically forensic, accurate and intelligent approach to the subject and he did not understate the case. It was put effectively, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), the Chairman of the Select Committee, pointed out. He deserves the congratulations of the House on that task having been so accomplished.

I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), who clearly represent an area that has a long-standing problem. They resisted the temptation for a media reaction to the resolution of that problem and they talked with great sensitivity and great understanding of the problems in the city of Bradford. They were a great credit to their constituents in the handling of the matter.

The debate has not been party political as this is not a party political issue. However, to take up the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West, it is unfortunate when a political party in any part of the country uses this issue as a stick with which to beat another party at election time. I hope that such heat can be taken out of the subject, as it appears not to have been on at least one occasion in Bradford. It is not constructive, it does not lead anywhere, it builds up false expectations and, in the long run, it is not a helpful way of dealing with the problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) brought to bear on the discussion an understanding unequalled in the House. I cannot think of another hon. Member who has had professional responsibility for dealing with these problems. Although it did not lead to his car being turned over, that is not an irregular event and on occasions, it has been more his problem than anybody else's. He brought a particular experience to the debate, which was useful and helpful. I cannot cover all the speeches in great detail because of the restricted time available, and I am anxious not to overrun the time allocated to me.

The problem is not getting any smaller, as various hon. Members pointed out. The number of authorised encampments in 1981–-to take a reference point—was about 4,201); there are no more than 4,500 now. Any progress has been small and has not eaten into the problem. The consequences of not dealing with the demand for places have been outlined by other hon. Members, but they may need underlining further.

Maternity Alliance, which has not been mentioned so far, is not a party political body and is concerned mainly with the problems of childbirth and motherhood. It has highlighted the problem for travellers in securing safe stopping places during childbirth. Apparently, there has been an acknowledged problem—not a huge problem because the numbers are not high—of people finding a secure place to give birth. The Maternity Alliance has also pointed out that the use of the Public Order Act 1986 has, on occasions, led to pregnant women being harassed—not with fatal consequences—at a time when the last thing that they need is to be moved on, harassed and harried by police and other officials.

The National Council for Civil Liberties generates controversy from time to time, but generally it tries to act as a watchdog for our civil liberties, and I am sure that most reasonable hon. Members agree that it fulfils a necessary function. The NCCL has pointed out that, on occasions, the civil rights of travelling people have been breached. It has stated that there is a need for designated sites and proper stopping places. It is difficult to protect the civil rights of anybody who does not have a regular pattern of living.

The NCCL has recognised that about one third of England is, in effect, a no-go area for travelling people. That shows the reality of the choices available to them. They are not welcome in and will be moved on from as much as one third of the area of England. We need to address that serious problem. The NCCL has also published a series of proposals, not all of which either the Labour party or myself would endorse. Nevertheless, it has highlighted the fact that in this case there has been an erosion of civil liberties and that we must deal with that issue.

Several hon. Members referred to the problem of education which, for many travelling children, simply does not exist. Many of them do not have any continuity or pattern to their education because the lack of permanent sites and stopping places makes that impossible. That means that we shall have a continuing problem. The merry-go-round of official action, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West highlighted so well and 10 which the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) referred, but from a different perspective, is also evident in travelling children's education. They cannot have any continuity when they are moved from pillar to post and d o not know where they will be from one month—or even one week—to the next.

Several studies have been carried out on the health of travelling children and their families. A review article in the Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners in October 1989 listed some of the health problems that general practitioners have encountered when trying to give treatment to the families of travelling people. The article refers to the hostile environment in which travelling people often live, which is often a breeding ground for disease and leads to various other problems. It also refers to their problems of access to health care because, as I said., they do not have a regular pattern of living and have no regular base. Both the length of that article and the limited time available to me prevent me from going into as much detail as I should have liked, but I repeat that we must address that real health problem.

The real problem is that this Government and, to some extent, previous Labour Governments, have failed properly to enforce the legislative powers that already exist. It is that failure that has created all the other problems. It has led to the problems of which my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington has experience and to the problems experienced in constituencies across the country where there are rival hostilities. On the one hand, there is a need to provide homes for people to live in but, on the other hand, there is the problem of the hostility of resident communities when unofficial encampments are set up and sometimes even when there are attempts to establish more permanent bases.

In the end, the responsibility falls to Government. If local authorities, whatever their political persuasion, do not fulfil their obligations, central Government must make them do so. That is the thrust of the Select Committee report and the thrust that my hon. Friends and I support.

I hope that, at long last, the health, education and other problems that have been raised in the debate, including the need to find sites, are tackled effectively. If they are not, the problems, as in the past 10 years or more, will continue to grow. If that happens, it will bring no credit to the Government, to the House and to hon. Members. While I suspect that the Minister will not be able to satisfy us that all those problems will be tackled, he has a worthy task.

This has been a good debate, which has shown that the Government of the day must try to resolve the problems that exist for this minority of people. Otherwise they will be the Government of only part of the nation and will not be looking after the interests of all, including this minority.