Gipsy Sites

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:46 pm on 10th July 1990.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 9:46 pm, 10th July 1990

I shall do my best in the 15 minutes remaining to answer the points that have been raised. I join others in congratulating all who participated in the debate, which has been of high quality. It has fairly reflected the fact that this is the first prime time debate on gipsies for many years. It vindicates the use that has been made on this occasion of important estimates time and has shown the widespread interest in the subject by hon. Members in all parts of the House.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) on the clear and concise way in which he introduced the debate and presented the findings of the Select Committee. He, as a representative of Hertfordshire, knows more about the problem than many. He drew attention to some of the issues involved.

It has been obvious during the debate that it is not easy to find any consensus on the subject. If we needed reminding of that, we did not have to wait long before we heard the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) complaining that Bradford had been designated, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) complaining that Haringey had not been designated. It is against that background that I have been fortunate in receiving so much in the way of commiseration from hon. Members on both sides.

The starting point is the numbers and the progress that has been made since the passing of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. When that measure was passed, relatively few gipsies were on authorised sites. By January 1979 there were 8,358 gipsy caravans in England, of which 4,182 were on authorised sites and almost an equivalent number on unauthorised sites. In other words, only 50 per cent. by January 1979 were on authorised sites.

By January 1990—it is important when comparing figures always to choose the same month in the year because there is much variation during the course of a year—there were 11,544 gipsy caravans in England, an increase of about 3,200. The number on authorised sites had gone up from 4,182 to 7,650, an increase of about 3,500. That was a creditable improvement in performance, brought about by the way in which the Government implemented the Act. It is also significant that the number of caravans on authorised private sites has gone up significantly, from about 1,100 in 1979 to 2,471 in January this year.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) and for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) and others pointed out, the question is to what extent the number will continue to increase, for at present the number of gipsy caravans is increasing almost as fast as additional provision is being made. That is why one can get a projection that it will be many years before the problem is resolved. I take a much more pessimistic—or perhaps realistic—view. The problems will never be solved while we rely on the legislation that we have. As soon as the demand is satisfied, there will be additional demands.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West drew attention to the difficulty of defining a gipsy. It is worth reminding the House that the issue was considered in another place in a court judgment in 1988. The judgment confirmed the statutory definition by concluding: The test of a person claiming to be a gipsy is that of a nomadic way of life rather than race or origin. It is for the local authority to decide whether a person or group of people comes within that definition. From what one hears, there may be more scope for local authorities to question the credentials of some people who present themselves as gipsies. If that was done, we might see a slowing of the increase in the number of gipsy caravans. Clearly, it is not worth while for a council to undertake that questioning role unless it is designated. If it is designated, it can take effective action to ensure that unauthorised camping in its area is significantly reduced, if not eliminated.

We have heard that the increase in provision represents genuine progress, but of course things are not absolutely perfect. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green reminded the House of the vile way in which some so-called gipsies behave and the awful consequences for people who live in the area. At the end of a powerful speech, my hon. Friend asked what advice I could give him. My advice is to seek to persuade his council in Haringey to apply for designation. My Department has done all that it can to persuade Haringey to apply for designation.