I am very pleased to have the opportunity to raise an extremely important constituency issue. For the record, the correct pronunciation is "Mine-tee", and a wonderful place it is, too. However, in recent weeks and months—indeed, it is getting on for two years—what was a peaceful and remote rural village has, in effect, been wrecked by the presence of 50 or 60 Gypsy caravans, whose owners have illegally occupied a greenfield site.
This is a timely debate because the issue affects not only Minety, but a great many other places throughout England. Most notable among them are Smithy Fen near Cottenham, where the problem that I am about to describe is particularly bad, and North Curry in Somerset, which has recently had the Minety experience again. So the debate is of more than purely constituency interest, and the Minister's reply will be of interest to hon. Members from throughout England. Indeed, even the Prime Minister suggested at Prime Minister's Question Time last Wednesday that he would leave no stone unturned in seeking a solution to this intractable problem, so we are looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on his behalf.
Under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, we could remove Gypsies when they were illegally camped on public or private land. That was easily done; it was a good Act and it worked rather well. In recent years, however, the pattern has changed: instead of illegally entering public or private land, Gypsies purchase land and occupy it covertly, having put it around that they want it for agricultural purposes. They nearly always invade the site after office hours on a Friday evening so that the local district council has gone home for the weekend. They breach the hedges, bringing in dozens of lorries of hardcore to lay down hard standing. They bring cesspits and even lay on electricity and, in many cases, telephones. An army of caravans then arrives—in my constituency, it was 50 or 60, but there were even more in Cambridgeshire, which was a particularly bad case. The same happened in Newbury and a variety of other places. By Monday morning, when the district council returns to work, it finds a well established Gypsy encampment of 50 or 100 caravans.
The Gypsies then put in a retrospective planning application for the site, which the district council, of course, turns down. Naturally enough, the Gypsies go to appeal on the issue. Attempts are made to remove them. In my constituency, Wiltshire county council tried to use highways matters in the High Court to do that, but the court will defer any such removal action until an appeal has been heard, which, by definition, may be a year to 18 months from the date of the illegal occupation. If the Gypsies take the matter further—they have talked about going to the European Court of Human Rights and to other organisations—it could be several months or years before proper action is taken to end what, by anybody's standards, is an illegal occupation.
The Gypsies seem to hope that inertia will set in and that people will say that it is easier to leave them where they are than to remove them because they have been there for such a long time. Well, I can tell them that, as far as Minety goes, they have chosen the wrong village. People there are up in arms in a big way about the issue. I have held two public meetings, both of which were attended by 400 extremely angry people who wanted to take all kinds of action to have the Gypsies removed.
If the Gypsies think that the MP for the area is a pushover, they have made a mistake there, too. I assure those Gypsies, who are making the lives of several of my constituents hell—I use the word advisedly—that if they think we will roll over and let them stay, they are quite wrong. I have been to two or three such debates in this Chamber, so I know that the same applies to several other areas, where the Member of Parliament is fighting the case very hard.
The debate is particularly timely because, on Monday, the Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister produced what, in many ways, was a carefully researched and thought through report on the problem. I welcome the fact that the Committee has done that work, and we look forward to the Government's response. However, I have no hesitation in taking issue with one of the main conclusions reached by the Select Committee—that the solution to the kind of illegal occupancy of land that I have described in Minety is the provision of more Gypsy sites throughout England. The Committee seems to think that if we provide enough Gypsy sites for the 3,500 caravans that are illegally parked at present, that will solve the problem.
If that is the case, where will those sites be built? They would be small sites—perhaps 10 caravans per site—and we would therefore be looking for 300 or 350 more sites just for a few caravans. Given that we are talking only about rural constituencies, that would probably mean three or four proper Gypsy caravan sites in each of those rural constituencies. My constituency would doubtless be one of them, and if I was challenged to find three or four sites for a legal Gypsy encampment in North Wiltshire, I would be hard pressed to do so—indeed, I would not consider doing so.
The Committee's conclusion also ignores the fact that the Gypsies do not seem to want to go to certain parts of England—they seem to want to go to particular places—and also that they do not want to go on to local authority sites. In Wiltshire, for example, we have an abundance of local authority sites—perhaps I exaggerate my case a little by using the word "abundance"—but there are certainly vacancies on local authority sites in Wiltshire. Indeed, a new site was recently opened outside Salisbury. The Gypsies in Minety left a local authority site in Swindon—a legitimate, sensible local authority site—and moved on to their own land.
The pattern appears to be that Gypsies do not to want to live on local authority sites, but on land that they themselves own. I rather encourage that. It seems to me to be eminently sensible to encourage them to set up their own sites legally and with proper planning permission. Local authorities ought to set aside and designate land for Gypsy encampments. The Gypsies could then buy that land and put an encampment on it. That seems a sensible way forward, whereas invading a site and then seeking retrospective planning permission will not work.
There is also a problem of what I would describe as a Parkinson's law of Gypsies: there has been an enormous increase in the number of Gypsies in England, which shows no sign of abating. I remember that in the early 1960s, when the original legislation on Gypsy encampments was passed, there were 3,000 caravans in England and about 1,700 illegally parked. Today, there are about 6,000 Gypsy caravans on council-approved sites, 5,000 on private sites, and about 4,000 that are illegally parked—something like 15,000 in total. In other words, the numbers have increased four times since the 1960s.
Recently, I asked a Gypsy at a meeting that I held with them, "Where on earth are all these Gypsies coming from?" and received probably the most disarming response that I have experienced at any recent meeting. He replied, "From their mothers, I reckon." However, I do not think that that is the case—although doubtless they had something to do with it. I suspect that a significant number of Gypsies are coming in from Ireland and Romania. There is a significant influx of Gypsies into England at present and, with the expansion of the European Union, that process will doubtless continue.
I therefore do not accept that simply increasing the number of sites available—putting some sort of requirement on local authorities to provide sites—would necessarily solve the problem. In that context, I am glad to have read a press release in which the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister gave an initial reaction to the Select Committee's report. It stated:
"A duty to provide sites is not necessarily an appropriate solution. A duty has been tried before and often did not produce sufficient or appropriate provision. A duty which relates solely to the Gypsy and Traveller community reinforces the view that they should be dealt with outside the mainstream housing system."
I hope that the Minister will reiterate that statement today, and confirm that placing some kind of obligation on local authorities to provide more sites would not necessarily solve the problem.
The second point on which many people watching the debate today will be keen to hear a clear statement from the Minister relates to the fact that a number of recent court cases concerning Gypsies have rested to a significant degree on the Human Rights Act 1998. There is some lack of clarity as to whether the Human Rights Act can be used in planning law during consideration of whether to allow those sites. In the recent Chichester case, the media's interpretation was that the Act had led the judge to allow the Gypsies to remain, although I think that that was a misinterpretation of the judgment. In a recent case in Cottenham, the judge delayed any decision on the site pending a legal challenge by the Gypsies using the 1998 Act. In that case, the judge commented that the Gypsies were holding a gun to the head of the councils.
Will the Minister confirm the stance taken by the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Yvette Cooper at our meeting about six months ago, to which I took a group of councillors and officers from Wiltshire county council and North Wiltshire district council? At that meeting, I asked her whether the Human Rights Act 1998 should have anything to do with planning issues with regard to Gypsies, and she gave a reply that she then confirmed in writing. Her letter states:
"The European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act do not grant Gypsies immunity from planning legislation."
She said also that local planning authorities, inspectors and the Secretary of State have always had to comply with convention rights
"whether the cases involve Gypsies or non-Gypsies."
That sums it up exactly: Gypsies and non-Gypsies alike must conform to planning law, and the fact that some people happen to be of a nomadic frame of mind should not give any presumption in their favour in planning law. They must go through the same processes that any other constituent of mine would have to go through if they wanted to set up their holiday caravan in a field. There is no reason why a person who calls himself a Gypsy, Traveller, new-age Traveller or any of the other descriptions around, should have a presumption in their favour. The presumption against allowing such things should apply to them in the same way as to anyone else.
The European Court of Human Rights confirmed that approach in the Chapman case of 2001, in which it said that any kind of presumption in favour of Gypsies would be
"tantamount to imposing on the United Kingdom . . . an obligation . . . to make available to the Gypsy community an adequate number of suitably equipped sites."
The court said that it was not convinced that the human rights convention could be interpreted to allow
"such a far-reaching . . . obligation of general social policy" to be imposed on member states.
So, the ECHR seems to have laid down that the Human Rights Act does not apply, and the Under-Secretary of State seems to have confirmed that in her letter to me, but the judges in certain recent cases seem to be unclear as to whether the Human Rights Act applies. The Minister might like to use this opportunity, if he does nothing else, to shed some light on this particular legal point about the degree to which Gypsies may use the Act in seeking to obtain a retrospective planning application.
Leaving the legal question aside, it seems to me—and the Prime Minister, if he is to believed—that people in Minety, and many other places across England, should be able to remove people such as the Gypsies in Minety. They are breaking the law; they have illegally moved into a greenfield site in the middle of the countryside. No one disputes that they have broken planning law. Even the Gypsies do not dispute that; they do not say, "We are here legally." They accept that they are there illegally.
The first duty of the Government should be to come up with a mechanism whereby we can remove such people more easily and quickly. Several proposals have been put forward, most notably last year, in the private Member's Bill of an hon. Friend of mine, which would have allowed stop notices to be applied to Gypsies instantly on their discovery, and their instant removal so that they could seek prospective rather than retrospective planning permission for their site. In other words, it would have put them in precisely the same situation as any other applicant. The Ministry or the Government should tell councils such as North Wiltshire district council what they can do better to enforce the planning law.
I readily accept that there are complex legal issues—the fact that the courts are so busily occupied looking into Gypsy sites is evidence of that, but positive discrimination in favour of Gypsies is as bad as negative discrimination against them. I hope that the Minister agrees. It is plain that, in equity, Gypsies should be treated in precisely the same way as anyone else. I have no objection to their nomadic way of life; I respect that they want to live that way. If they want to settle down, I, as a local Member of Parliament, will help them with housing and other issues, but if they want to live a nomadic way of life, they should be treated the same as any constituent who does not. If they prefer to own their sites, that is fine; let us have local authority land designated specifically for Gypsy encampments, but can we please have stronger powers to enforce the will of the local people, as represented by the district councils, for when they will not do that?
Illegal Gypsy encampments of the kind at Minety seem rapidly to be becoming a national crisis. This afternoon, we look to the Minister to show us some ways out of this difficult problem.