Orders of the Day — Travellers

– in the House of Commons at 11:05 pm on 29th June 1992.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr Kirkhope.]

Photo of Michael Spicer Michael Spicer Chair, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology 11:18 pm, 29th June 1992

Many of my hon. Friends have expressed interest in joining in the debate. They have included my hon. Friends the Members for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell), for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd), for Newbury (Mrs. Chaplin), for Worcester (Mr. Luff), for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer), for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland), for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) and for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans). In the short time that is allocated to me, it will be impossible to accommodate all or perhaps any of my hon. Friends who may wish to intervene. However, the House will wish to note their interest and that of my other hon. Friends. It certainly suggests the need for a full debate in the near future. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

I first raised the subject of travellers in the House some 12 years ago, in 1980, again on a motion for the Adjournment. The invasion that took place at Castlemorton common in my constituency, on Friday 22 May, has prompted me to do so again. On that day, new age travellers, ravers and drugs racketeers arrived at a strength of two motorised army divisions, complete with several massed bands and, above all, a highly sophisticated command and signals system. However, they failed to bring latrines.

The numbers, speed and efficiency with which they arrived—amounting at one time to as many as 30,000 people—combined to terrorise the local community to the extent that some residents had to undergo psychiatric treatment in the days that followed.

Such an incident must never happen again, in my constituency or elsewhere. We need tighter laws, especially to give banning powers to the police; a Cabinet Committee to bring responsible Departments together; quicker and more co-ordinated police action; and a more effective application of existing policies by national and local authorities. The main Acts of Parliament that govern the issue are the Caravan Sites Act 1968 and the Public Order Act 1986. A certain amount of case law also arises, mainly from the miners' strikes of the 1980s.

There is therefore the problem that at least three Departments of State are directly involved in administering the relevant legislation: the Department of the Environment; the Home Office; and the Lord Chancellor's Office. Immediate steps must be taken to co-ordinate those Departments' activities, preferably through the formation of a special Cabinet Committee.

The Public Order Act focuses, in this context, on the law of trespass. Section 39 empowers to senior police officers to direct trespassers to leave land on which more than 12 vehicles have been brought or where there has been threatening or abusive behaviour. That would be all very well, except for the practical problem that, once 20,000 people—invariably accompanied by young children—have committed the trespass, it would require not an army but the Army of at least 100,000 persons to get them off.

The problem of mass gatherings must be dealt with before they take place. Section 39 of the Public Order Act could be strengthened to that effect—for instance, by empowering the police to prevent further trespass where a direction to leave has already been given. But the real necessity is that chief constables should be given discretionary powers to ban such gatherings altogether if they decide that they are a threat to public order, in precisely the same way as section 13 of the 1986 Act empowers chief constables to ban public processions. Chief constables may wish to ban all gatherings that have not received an appropriate licence from the local authority.

In parenthesis, even where a licence has been granted, as at Glastonbury last weekend, there is a great problem of crowd control when such large numbers are involved. That is especially true when the crowd starts to disperse, as the police of Devon are finding out at this very moment.

The police argue that, to be effective, a banning power requires early intelligence about the forthcoming event. I think that that is only partly true. A banning order would put off the majority of the normally law-abiding, city-based partygoers. As they provide the bulk of the numbers, not to mention the noise, their absence would make the policing task much easier. There is no doubt, however, that police intelligence and hence their response capability must be greatly improved.

This can be brought about only if there is a great deal more co-operation and co-ordination between police forces. What happens now can almost be characterised as a game of pass the parcel between the forces. Stories—many of them no doubt apocryphal—abound about the police helping to fill up vehicles with petrol in order to get them across their borders and into the territory of another police force. Certainly a blind eye is turned to untaxed vehicles heading in the right direction—that is to say, out of territory.

There remains the wider issue of the extent to which, in a free society, people should be allowed or presented with the opportunity to lead a nomadic life, and the Caravan Sites Act attempts to deal with just that matter, with a core policy of providing permanent and transit sites for gipsies. A major defect of the Act—I hope that it will be dealt with in the review that the Government propose to undertake in line with their commitment to one in the manifesto—lies in the extremely wide definition of gipsies as persons of nomadic habit of life". That has meant, as I discovered when I was the Minister responsible for the matter, that the demand for provided places continually outstrips supply targets.

The police powers triggered by designation under the terms of the Act have in most parts of the country become a mirage. We therefore need a much tighter definition of "gipsy" as someone whose cultural heritage and economic history provide a clear justification for being on the move. With a tighter definition of "gipsy", it would be easier for local authorities to meet their designation targets swiftly, and once designation has been achieved, the police must move decisively against those who camp illegally on other people's land.

It is one thing under the 1968 Act to grant special dispensation—there are many such for gipsies—to those who have a deep-rooted cultural and economic tradition of travelling. It is quite another to provide mobile social security services and to waive the law of trespass for anyone who decides to pick up sticks and shrug off the responsibilities that are the flipside of the rights of individuals provided by a civilised society.

Freedom of choice includes without doubt the right to choose one's life style—until it becomes a threat to the life style of the majority. The threat posed by new age travellers and hippies is to private property and the rule of law. Freedom without law can become anarchy, and the antidote of anarchy is often dictatorship.

It is time the Government acted with a greater sense of urgency and focus against the abuse of property rights and the threat to law posed by illegal encampments on a small and a large scale. The problem, which has been with us for many years, has now reached boiling point. If it is allowed to persist, vigilante groups will spring up and take matters into their own hands; and that way lie anarchy and chaos, not least for the gipsies themselves.

Photo of Charles Wardle Charles Wardle , Bexhill and Battle 11:28 pm, 29th June 1992

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) on his success in raising this important issue. I am mindful of the fact that this must be one of the best attended Adjournment debates for some time. A number of my hon. Friends who are present have experience of problems with new age travellers and ravers, and they will no doubt have taken note of what my hon. Friend said. They may also want to ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for the chance of a full debate on this subject in due course.

My hon. Friend is well qualified to speak on this subject because, as he reminded the House, he was Minister of State, Department of the Environment from, I think, January 1990 to November 1990. I appreciate what he says about the need for tighter laws and I shall tell the House about the existing powers and the emphasis that should be placed on co-ordination.

I agree that co-ordination between police forces could be improved, and that such improvement is important in dealing with people on the move. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend's comments about co-ordination through a Cabinet Committee are passed to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. My hon. Friend's comments about social security will no doubt be noted by my right hon. and hon. Friends in that Department. Trespass always gives rise to strong feelings.

Photo of Mr Colin Shepherd Mr Colin Shepherd , Hereford

The Minister moved quickly over the issue of social security. Does he agree that that is the nub of the matter in so far as the life style of the new age travellers is sustained by what my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) called mobile social security? Regulations enable such people to pick up social security payments anywhere in the country. Time and again, lay-bys in my constituency are full of new age travellers who are unable to move on because they have not got their girocheques. Can the Minister tell us more about the liaison between his Department and the Department of Social Security, because such liaison will enable us to grasp the nettle?

Photo of Charles Wardle Charles Wardle , Bexhill and Battle

As a result of what my hon. Friend has said, he can be assured that the issue will be raised with the Department of Social Security. I agree that the present system is an inducement and should be closely examined. The problems that we are debating arise from the combination of ravers and new age travellers, and I should like to address the aspects of the problem that concern, first and foremost, the Home Office. However, I shall touch on the Department of the Environment.

During the summer travelling season, the incidence of unlawful occupation causes great distress to local communities and landowners. I assure the House that the Government are firmly committed to tackling the nuisance of illegal encampments in the most effective manner. The events in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South at Castlemorton common over the May bank holiday were exceptional by any standards. My other hon. Friends who are present for the debate have had similar experiences, but this was an exceptional and deeply unpleasant weekend. My hon. Friend spoke with deep feeling about the unpleasant scenes that unfolded in what is normally a beautiful part of rural England.

I condemn the lawlessness and lack of common decency shown by some of those who camped on Castlemorton common. It is unacceptable for people to try to put themselves beyond the reach of the law by acting together in huge numbers. There is no excuse for the abandonment of common decency, and I have every sympathy with those whose normally peaceful life was so rudely disrupted.

No one, including my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South, would deny that people have a right to lead a nomadic life if they so choose, but it is quite intolerable for people to behave in contravention of the law and with complete disregard for the rights of others. Faced with these events, my hon. Friend is right to ask what else the police can do, to what degree further co-ordination would help deal with the problem, and whether new powers should be made available to the police.

Mass gatherings present particular problems. The difficulty faced by the police when dealing with mass invasions such as that at Castlemorton common is not so much what powers they have as how to apply them—as I think my hon. Friend has recognised. The problem is as much logical as legal. The most effective measures that the police can take to deal with new age travellers are preventive. They can make sure that their intelligence gathering is good and that liaison with neighbouring forces and local authorities is close. If the police can monitor the movements of travellers, measures can be taken to try to ensure that the numbers do not build up in any one locality to unmanageable proportions.

Photo of Charles Wardle Charles Wardle , Bexhill and Battle

As time for the debate is limited, perhaps my hon. Friend would allow me to make some more progress. I shall return to him.

Local authorities and landlords may be able to take action to prevent trespass on their land. For example, prior to the gathering on Castlemorton common, both Avon and Somerset and Gloucestershire constabularies were able to enforce injunctions to prevent travellers assembling on commons in their areas.

Photo of Mr James Spicer Mr James Spicer , West Dorset

I understand the constraints of time, but I am glad of the opportunity to make this one point. We are not just looking at landowners and farmers: we are looking also at our police forces, and they are not those directly involved in this incident. In all the counties represented by my hon. Friends who are here, hundreds of police are being diverted weekend after weekend by these miserable people, and this has to be stopped.

Photo of Charles Wardle Charles Wardle , Bexhill and Battle

My hon. Friend is right, and that is why co-ordination between police forces to try to deal with these circumstances as they build up is important.

It is worth pointing out that, where necessary, chief constables can request mutual aid, as my hon. Friend knows, from neighbouring forces, and, where the scale grows, arrangements can quickly be put into place to supply the host area with additional manpower.

If, for whatever reason, the police cannot prevent huge numbers from establishing themselves on a site, inevitably they will decide to adopt a policy of containment, as happened at Castlemorton. We must bear in mind that the police have a delicate balance to maintain between dealing with crime and provoking disorder. There is only so much that one can do once a crowd of 20,000 has assembled. It would have been of no benefit to local residents that May weekend if insensitive action had provoked a full-scale riot.

Besides containment, the police can be expected to provide protection to local residents, as they did at Castlemorton, and mount an operation to tackle the drugs problems. The House will be interested to know that there were 73 arrests at the Castlemorton incident and another 74 cautions, all connected with drugs.

Photo of Mr Paul Marland Mr Paul Marland , Gloucestershire West

The problem is not only the large gatherings—Castlemorton has highlighted the problems they cause—but the small ones. The police can move in if there are 13 vehicles, but if there are 12 they cannot, although that is just as terrifying and alarming for the landowners and the people in the district. These people go to isolated areas where there are a few houses, often occupied by elderly people, as has happened in my constituency on May hill, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) will know. When they eventually go, the local community dig deep ditches and put huge piles of stone and large tree trunks across entrances so that nobody else can get in to enjoy these rural beauty spots, and the innocent picnickers or ramblers are denied access to the sites.

Photo of Charles Wardle Charles Wardle , Bexhill and Battle

I understand entirely what my hon. Friend has said: small-scale gatherings can be just as alarming as large-scale ones. I hope that the House will allow me to make progress by going through the powers that already exist and setting out Government actions.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has called for a full report from the chief constable of West Mercia on the policing of the events of Castlemorton common and on any lessons to be learned from it. My noble Friend the Minister of State is this week meeting chief constables to consider the powers available to the police service, the intelligence and liaison arrangements between forces, and their tactics for handling large gatherings. We shall consider what action may be necessary after consultation with those chief officers.

It is important to emphasise that the effect of successful police operations to prevent travellers gathering at particular locations is to split them up and move them on. The Government have looked hard at the issue of trespass on land, and there are no easy answers. Existing legislation provides a number of remedies for landowners to deal with trespass on land by those who intend to reside. The vast majority of cases of trespass are resolved, as they should be, either informally or through the civil courts.

The Caravan Sites Act 1968, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South said that he was familiar, also has an important role to play. This Act places a duty on local authorities to provide adequate official sites for gipsies—this is the definition that my hon. Friend used—resorting to or residing in their area. For these purposes, gipsies are defined as persons of nomadic habit of life, whatever their race or origin. The courts have given clear indications that, in this context "gipsy" has a broad definition.

Once a local authority has provided sufficient sites and thus become designated under the 1968 Act it has access, through the magistrates court, to move gipsies off any unauthorised site, whether owned privately or by the local authority, but despite the provision of 100 per cent. Exchequer grant for official sites, provision has not kept pace with the growth in the number of gipsy vehicles, as so defined, in England and Wales. Some 300 sites have been provided in all, including 10 in Hereford and Worcester.

Twenty-two years after the implementation of the 1968 Act, only 38 per cent. of district councils in England have been designated, and only one district council in Wales. So there are not enough sites provided by local authorities for the growing number of travellers—travellers within the broader definition. We are well aware of the difficulty that new age travellers do not always wish to occupy authorised sites but want instead to roam freely across the country where they please. We are also familiar with the argument that powers available to designated authorities under the 1968 Act are too cumbersome to deal quickly with the problem of persistent illegal camping. In addition, even where eviction powers may be used against those who are camped illegally, the effect may be to place them within the ranks of the statutorily homeless.

The Conservative party manifesto of this year recognised these problems, and the deficiencies in the legislative framework provided in the Caravan Sites Act 1968 for dealing with them. It undertook to tackle the problem by reviewing the 1968 Act, with the aim of reducing the nuisance of illegal encampments. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment—my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry)—is taking the lead in this review. The Government hope shortly to be able to issue a consultation paper with proposals for reform, and will no doubt take account of what my hon. Friend has said this evening.

However, the question about the way the law seeks to deal with large gatherings, as well as smaller ones, and associated problems, such disorder and noise, is likely to remain. The police have the power at common law to order a crowd to disperse if they apprehend that a breach of the peace is likely to take place. They may also take steps to limit or prevent the build-up of a crowd by turning back people or vehicles if they consider that a breach of the peace is imminent. If necessary, the police may arrest as a result of or in order to prevent a breach of the peace.

Section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986, to which my hon. Friend referred, was conceived during the passage of the Public Order Bill in response to the mass invasions of land in around Stonehenge during the summer of 1986. Section 39 gives the police the discretionary power to direct trespassers to leave land where two or more trespassers have entered the land with the purpose of residing there, and the owner or occupier has asked them to leave; and if any of the trespassers is threatening or abusive; or if any of the trespassers causes damage; or if the trespassers between them bring 12 or more vehicles onto the land. Section 39 is not a substitute for normal civil procedures, but it provides a limited criminal sanction to deal with aggravated trespass.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler , North Cornwall

The Minister will be aware that, in Davidstow in north Cornwall, we had an invasion by very large numbers. Subsequently, the police, the landowners and the commoners felt that section 39 was not sufficient to deal with the problem. That was 12 months ago. I wonder whether the Home Office has taken account of that experience.

Photo of Charles Wardle Charles Wardle , Bexhill and Battle

It has. In fact, I am about to refer to a review of section 39.

In 1990, we undertook a thorough public evaluation of section 39 to assess how its relatively new powers were working. The review showed that, when used, the section provided a quick and effective remedy. On 22 May 1991, the then Home Secretary announced that no change to the law was required. The powers were there; it was a question of how they were used.

Apart from trespass, problems can also arise over noise nuisance where parties are held on the land. Where the local authority has adopted such measures, entertainment licensing laws under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 apply inter alia to rave parties. Where there is an entertainment on private land, therefore, in order to be legal, it must be licensed—provided, of course, that the local authority has taken up the available powers.

The police have no general power under entertainment licensing legislation to seize equipment used for parties, but their powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 allow them to seize material which might be needed for evidential purposes to prevent its being lost, stolen or destroyed. As to noise, I understand that the Environmental Protection Act 1990 provides for environmental health officers to confiscate audio equipment to secure compliance with a noise abatement notice.

The measures that I have listed constitute a considerable array of powers which are available to the police and local authorities. Additionally, of course, the civil and criminal law apply.

I do not, therefore, wish to underestimate the difficulties of tackling the problem. Nevertheless, I can reassure my hon. Friend and the House we are examining whether and how the current position can be improved. The Government will do everything sensible that they can to remedy a difficult situation.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.