Travellers' Camps (Skegness)

Petition – in the House of Commons at 10:57 pm on 28th March 2001.

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

Photo of Mr Richard Body Mr Richard Body Conservative, Boston and Skegness 10:59 pm, 28th March 2001

I applied for this Adjournment debate because, after I had arranged an appointment with the Minister to receive a civic deputation from Lincolnshire, I received a message that the meeting was to be cancelled, as the Minister had something more important to do, or words to that effect. I regret that no offer of an alternative date was made.

I was put in some difficulty because, when I had to report the news to the deputation, I was asked, not unnaturally, what other date was going to be offered. I have known cancellations before, and of course all hon. Members understand that they happen—however, I will have been in the House for 40 years in October, and I have never encountered such treatment from a Minister before. I had to tell the deputation that the matter was unfortunate, and that I would have to seek some other way to make representations to the Minister on behalf of Lincolnshire. That is the reason for this Adjournment debate.

I understand that I am far from being the first Conservative Member in this Parliament to suffer a cancellation such as that. Indeed, the most recent occasion was only a few days ago: a deputation was on its way to the Minister and had to be cancelled while it was making the journey. If that is how we are to be treated, so be it, but I regret it very much.

The Minister knows the reason for the debate. East Lindsey district council, at the request of the Lincolnshire police, has applied for an exclusion order for Skegness for four days over Easter. Information has been received that there may be a return visit of the travellers who came to Skegness over the Christmas and new year holiday.

I do not know whether the Minister knows Skegness. I hope that he does: he does not live far away, although on the wrong side of the Wash. However, if he has not visited the town already, I hope that he will one day. He is not eligible to be counted as one of the elderly people who enjoy their holidays there, nor as one of the young families with children who come to the town.

Skegness caters especially for those two types of visitor, and it has a number of distinctive features. Apart from the bracing air, it has the largest and most popular of all the Butlins holiday camps. It also has the second largest and most popular theme park in the country. It has the largest concentration of caravans in Europe: indeed, were it not for the one in California that slightly outstrips it, it would have the largest caravan concentration in the world.

There are more than 20,000 caravans in the area. They are used for holidays and weekends and they cater specifically for young people. A further several thousand caravans are permanently sited as homes for people who have come to live in Skegness. Thousands of people, such as retired miners and steelworkers from Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and elsewhere, have come to Skegness to retire.

That is a short word picture of the type of people who come to Skegness. The area has many thousands of visitors at Christmas and the new year, and I hope that the Minister will understand the effect on the town when 600 travellers descended in a long cavalcade of caravans. They broke through the barriers to the car parks and immediately began a course of behaviour in the town such that the police had to go to all the licensed premises—the hotels, restaurants, cafes and other places of entertainment—to warn them that, with great regret, they could not guarantee people's safety.

Within a short time of their arrival, a group of about 10 travellers descended on a public house. Their obscenities and intimidating behaviour were such that the police were called; but, of course, the police could not attend all the incidents. It is not surprising that all those establishments closed from the Saturday evening before Christmas until after the new year.

The effect was to turn Skegness into a ghost town. The Embassy—a major entertainment centre—had to cancel all its events during that period. The caravans were so packed around the centre that the emergency services begged for the cancellation of the events. The centre did so without a qualm, because it would have been quite impossible for the emergency services to reach it. Sadly, because the hotels had to warn people about what had happened and had to close their doors and turn people away, they suffered considerably.

Over the years, Skegness has succeeded in becoming a place that people visit for short breaks throughout the year. That is important for employment. As the Minister may know, in other holiday resorts, hotels often close down at the end of the season; they dismiss their staff, perhaps re-engaging them in the spring. That is not the policy in Skegness. Hotels try to keep open so as to retain their staff and give them full-time work all year round. By doing so, they tend to lose money in the winter months. However, they can make good that loss—just—if they do a reasonable trade over Christmas and the new year. Sadly, a serious loss was incurred. They will have to reconsider their policy unless steps are taken to prevent a recurrence of those events.

As for the public houses, almost all of them closed on the advice of the police. The police obviously did not say that the public houses had to close, but they gave strong advice that was accepted by the licensed trade. The loss has yet to be quantified, but it runs to hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds—perhaps millions. That has a serious effect on a comparatively small town.

Furthermore, people living in the town were put in fear. People stayed at home. I hope that the Minister can understand that elderly people did not wish to go out, as they were fearful about what was happening. I am sure that he will understand that parents with young children did not wish to go out and encounter such behaviour, so they stayed at home. The holiday period was ruined for many, many thousands of people—not fewer than 50,000 and probably more—by appalling behaviour. In addition, East Lindsey district council had to pay out about £10,000 to clear up the mess from the caravans.

An application for an order has been made and I understand that the Minister will consider it on Monday or Tuesday—I hope that he will do so sympathetically.

I appreciate that this is an issue of civil liberties, and that it is a serious matter to say even to 600 people that their freedom of movement should be curtailed and they should not be allowed to visit the town of their choice. However, I hope that the Minister will understand that many other thousands of people have a freedom too, or should have a freedom—that some 50,000 people should have the freedom to visit the town of their choice and enjoy a holiday, that their children should not be put in fear, and that elderly people should be able to visit licensed premises without being intimidated.

I hope that when the Minister weighs in the balance the freedom of the 600 to descend on Skegness, he also bears in mind the freedom of all those many thousands—no fewer than 50,000—to enjoy their Easter holiday. If these travellers return and behave as they behaved when they came at Christmas, the effect on Skegness could be catastrophic.

The Minister knows, because he is a man of Norfolk, the effect that the travellers' visit had on Yarmouth. An order was made to protect Yarmouth for last Christmas. Indeed, it was because of that order that the travellers came to Skegness. I hope that he will not be prejudiced against Lincolnshire and say, "We have got them out of Norfolk; they can go to Lincolnshire again." I am sure that he will not take that view. I hope that he will consider the application sympathetically and appreciate that a serious financial loss has already been incurred, that a great deal of unhappiness has been caused and that there are great anxieties about what may happen to the town at Easter if, on Monday or Tuesday—which is when I understand a decision will be taken—he does not make an order to protect so many thousands of people.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office 11:12 pm, 28th March 2001

I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) on securing the debate and apologise to him for some of the matters that he raised at the beginning. I certainly did, as I thought, postpone the meeting that I was to have with him and his constituents, and I did so at late notice. My normal practice is to offer alternative dates, and I am sorry if that did not happen this time. I know, for example, that I have postponed a couple of meetings with a group of Members of Parliament for Dorset and the chief constable of Dorset to discuss the situation in Dorset, and I know that that meeting is in my diary for next week, so I am not quite sure what happened in this instance, but I apologise for any discourtesy and am very happy to debate the issue now.

It is my practice—I have observed it a great deal since I have been a Minister at the Department for Education and Employment and at the Home Office—to meet delegations led by Members of Parliament because I believe that to be an important part of a Minister's job. I am therefore particularly upset that what happened on this occasion caused distress.

Unfortunately, I have never been to Skegness—it is a shaming apology to have to make. I have been to the other side of the Wash on many occasions, but I have not been to Skegness. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I have much experience of the consequences of such a traveller invasion, because over the new year 2000 a similar invasion happened in Yarmouth. It had exactly the effects that he described at Skegness. It led not only to expense—at one level that is trivial, but not in reality—but to fear and an extretnely unpleasant and damaging atmosphere in the town.

Yarmouth district council and Norfolk police applied for orders, which were agreed by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, to prevent travellers from massing in Great Yarmouth over Easter and Christmas last year. I am in some difficulty tonight because we have heard today that East Lindsey district council has issued a press release, saying that because of intelligence indicating that a large number of travellers are coming to Skegness over Easter, an application for an order under section 14A of the Public Order Act 1986, prohibiting trespassory assemblies in that area, has been sent to the Home Office.

The hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot prejudge my right hon. Friend's decision, but I can give an assurance that he will take that decision extremely rapidly so that action can be taken on the basis of it. I can also assure the hon. Gentleman—if he was making the remark in anything other than a mischievous spirit—that there is no suggestion of decanting travellers from Norfolk to other places on the east coast. The issue will be considered entirely on its merits, which is how it should be. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives information about my right hon. Friend's decision immediately after he takes it.

The powers are necessary for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. There is concern about large numbers of travellers descending on a town in the manner that he described. I understand that the encampment, although on the whole peaceful, produced a number of the results that he described, such as antisocial behaviour and other offences. The Government are clear that no criminal activity should be tolerated in respect of travellers and that they should be treated just like anyone else. There should be no sense that traveller communities are outside the law of the land; they are dealt with by the law in very precise ways. Indeed, the Home Office recently issued joint guidance with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, making it absolutely clear, beyond peradventure, that that was the case.

The law should be enforced for travellers as for all other sections of the community. It is for the police to ensure that any offence is properly investigated and that the law is enforced, but the police and local authorities have powers to direct trespassers to leave land when certain statutory conditions are met. It is an operational matter for the police to decide when and whether to use those powers. Perhaps it would be helpful in informing the debate if I were to explain some of the background.

Under section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the police have the power to remove people who are trespassing with intent to take up residence, and who have been asked to leave by the landowner. That is a serious power, which can be used when certain conditions are met: when the trespassers have more than six vehicles on the land or when they have caused damage, or used threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour towards the landowner or person acting for him. The police and local authority powers to direct trespassers to leave land under the 1994 Act are discretionary.

The power included in the 1994 Act under section 14A of the Public Order Act 1986 has been used on a number of occasions. I have mentioned the Norfolk police examples, but Wiltshire police gained an order on several occasions to prohibit trespassory assemblies in the Stonehenge area during the summer solstice celebrations—a different type of event from that to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Kent police have gained an order prohibiting trespassory assemblies in Horsmonden to prevent a horse fair, and there are a few other examples of the police using such powers.

Section 14A of the 1986 Act can be used where the chief officer of police believes that an assembly is intended to be held in any district at a place on land to which the public have no right of access or only a limited right of access and that the assembly, first, is likely to be held without the permission of the occupier of the land, or to conduct itself in such a way as to exceed the limits of any permission that he has given or the limits of the public's right of access; and, secondly, may result in serious disruption to the life of the community—which may be the sort of issue to which the hon. Gentleman refers—or where the land, or a building or monument on it is of historical, architectural or scientific importance, if significant damage to the land, building or monument may result. Those are the basic conditions under which the provisions of 1986 Act can be operated.

I cannot prejudge my right hon. Friend's decision on the application, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall address the situation very effectively. I understand that Lincolnshire police have agreed with a number of other east coast forces to form a joint operation, which would pool resources and apply the same robust approach to incursions anywhere in the joint area using available legislation and intelligence, so that traveller movements can be better anticipated in future.

I wish to say a word about intelligence. It has been difficult to predict where groups of travellers will assemble on significant occasions, such as Easter and new year, and we are actively considering ways of improving our capacity to do that. The Lincolnshire police initiative is one example of that. I do not accept that the decision of Yarmouth and Norfolk police necessarily led to the travellers being decanted to Skegness in the way that has been suggested. However, an approach that simply leads to the problem moving from one place to another is not an appropriate way of proceeding. That is why we welcome the joint approach in which Lincolnshire police and other forces are engaged. We shall support that approach in whatever way we can.

I think that I have said what I can say about the issue tonight. I reaffirm that we shall take a decision as rapidly as we conceivably can and that we shall take full account of the context of the application made by the police and East Lindsey district council. We will also take account of the points that the hon. Gentleman has made in the debate and we will communicate with him as soon as we take a decision, whatever that decision may be.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I am not able to prejudge what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will decide when he receives the application, but I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that the matter will be dealt with expeditiously.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Eleven o'clock.