May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Andrew Selous on securing this important debate and thanking all those who contributed? I recognise that feelings are strong across the House, and the turnout this evening, as my right hon. and gallant Friend Mr Francois pointed out, is an indication of that strength of feeling.
I stress again that the Government take the issue of living conditions and illegal activity on Traveller sites and unauthorised encampments extremely seriously. As a Member who represents a rural constituency that gets its fair share of some of the visitors who cause disruption and difficulty, I ought to add that this subject is of particular interest to me. I have listened carefully to all the accounts of the conditions on some sites, the challenges faced by those living on these sites and the difficulties that communities face as a result of unauthorised encampments, as well as all the constructive recommendations for how we could improve the way in which we deal with the present situation.
I am confident that I speak for everyone in this House when I say that we recognise that the majority of the travelling community are decent, law-abiding people. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, I have a number of settled small-scale travelling communities in my constituency who integrate well and are part of the community. However, we are extremely concerned about the issues raised during the debate regarding the conditions and activities carried out on certain sites, as well as the impact that unauthorised encampments can have on settled communities, especially when they give rise to criminality.
We promote a tolerant society in which people, whatever their background, can live, work, learn and socialise together, based on shared rights, responsibilities and opportunities, but we will not and should not sit by when people are breaking the law. The Government remain committed to ensuring that all communities, regardless of their ethnicity, are treated fairly, with equality under the law a fundamental tenet of our society, as my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford pointed out. Our aim is to ensure fair and equal treatment for Travellers in a way that facilitates their traditional and nomadic way of life while respecting the interests and rights of the settled community.
I will take in order some of the broad themes raised by hon. Members. First, on unauthorised encampments, in the spring we launched a consultation on the effectiveness of powers for dealing with unauthorised development and encampments, alongside colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office. The document sought views on a range of issues—from the powers available to local authorities and the police, to the provision of authorised stopping places and the impact that a change in existing powers could have on travelling communities.
The consultation, which closed on
Several Members, not least my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, raised the Irish model. It may be of interest to Members that my right hon. Friend the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary recently met the Irish Government to discuss their approach to trespass and unauthorised encampments. We will provide a formal response to the consultation in due course.