Alok Sharma responds to a Westminster Hall debate on illegal Gypsy and Traveller encampments in Bedfordshire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, for what I think is the first time in this Parliament. Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) on securing the debate and making a really powerful case for change. She pointed out that she is at the end of her tether; she has been focused on this issue over 12 years, and I know from the debates we have had—the general debate I took part in on Gypsies, Travellers and local communities in the main Chamber a couple of weeks ago and the Westminster Hall debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton)—that this issue matters to many Members of Parliament from all parts of the House, and it matters to our constituents.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who has also been pursuing this issue over a long period of time. He made a characteristically thoughtful intervention, thinking not just about the settled communities but about fairness in the system for the life chances of those from the Traveller and Gypsy communities.
I heard the recommendations made in the previous debates and those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire about how we can improve the way in which we deal with illegal incursions. I share her view that there is a hugely negative impact from unauthorised encampments on all our constituents. She mentioned Reading, and I know from my constituency of Reading West that there have been numerous incursions on public and private land in recent months, which causes a huge amount of heartache to those law-abiding citizens in the settled community who have to deal with it daily, weekly and sometimes monthly. That is not good enough.
I said this in the previous debate, but there is a perception among the settled communities in our constituencies that there is not equity under the law right now and that, if they behaved in the same manner as some of those undertaking illegal encampments and associated antisocial behaviour, they would be treated more harshly by the law. We need to change that perception.
Not only do unauthorised encampments deny law-abiding citizens access to cherished open spaces—parks and so on—but, as we have heard, there are associated problems such as antisocial behaviour and crime. On top of that, there is the real cost of dealing with the clear-up that comes after an illegal encampment is exited, which falls on hard-working taxpayers—our constituents—up and down the country. We are absolutely in listening mode, which is why, during the debate on 9 October, I announced that the Government intend to consult on the way in which existing powers are enforced to understand what more can be done to tackle many of the issues that my hon. Friend raised today and which other hon. Members have raised in previous debates.
I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said. Will he give the House an idea of the timescale for when change might happen as a result of the consultation he has announced?
That is a perfectly fair question. I hope that in a matter of weeks we will seek to consult on this matter. I understand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire said, that this is something we have been debating for years and the time has now come for action.
May I also say that there have been a number of consultations over the years? I hope this consultation will be the final one.
I hope that, as a result of the work we do in government, these debates will be more of a rare occurrence in future. Ultimately, it will be for colleagues and others to feed in their views when we move forward with this work.
As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire spoke powerfully about her constituents’ concerns about unauthorised encampments. She made a number of recommendations about how existing powers could be strengthened, which I have noted, including ensuring that local authorities and the police are allowed to do more to tackle unauthorised encampments. We will consider those proposals carefully alongside all the others we receive when we consult on this matter.
I want to touch briefly on site provision and its role in helping authorities to enforce the law. Sufficient site provision not only reduces the number of unauthorised encampments but enables the police to use the strongest enforcement powers. My hon. Friend talked about sections 61 and 62 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and it is the case that under that Act the police can direct people from unauthorised encampments to appropriate local sites. Failure to comply with such an order is an offence and offenders are prohibited from entering any land in the local authority area for a period of three months. By comparison—my hon. Friend alluded to this—where no sites are available, the prohibition extends only to the area of the encampment. By providing sufficient transit and permanent sites, local authorities can help to protect communities from the nuisance that unauthorised encampments can cause.
As my hon. Friend set out, we recognise that there are problems in her area. Bedfordshire has had numerous unauthorised incursions. As she pointed out, in some cases an authority’s response was helpful to local residents, but there were instances where more could have been done. I take on board what she said about improving legislation.
I make the point that even though more could have been done by Central Bedfordshire Council during some of these incursions, it is a fact—I think my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) will back me up on this—that the council’s Gypsy and Traveller encampment team are at their maximum. They got to the point where they could not respond to any more emails or take any more telephone calls. They were working flat out and could not cope with the amount of public anger and representation they received. There is a limit to what each council can do.
There is also the perception that the Minister’s own council deals with this issue much quicker. Perhaps that is because he is the Minister and Reading Council feels that it would be more answerable—I have no idea—but it deals with these issues much more efficiently. That inequality and lack of equity about the response is part of the problem.
Of course we have frustrations in Reading as well; but we want councils and police to act using the powers that they currently have. I would point out that local authorities can apply to the courts for pre-emptive injunctions that would prevent unauthorised camping in a defined area and, where they see an illegal encampment, they can advise the court in advance, without waiting for all the paperwork to be completed before they go to court, so that a hearing date can be expedited. I have noted my hon. Friend’s points.
A multi-agency approach is vital if we are to deal with incidents successfully. Local authorities, the police and other agencies such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency should work together to find appropriate solutions. I know that that happens in some areas. I want to make it clear, as I did in the general debate on this matter in the House, that the awful incidents in question are the actions of a minority, and that we should not allow them to tarnish the whole community. However, I also recognise that every illegal incursion is one too many, and that those incursions have a direct impact on law-abiding citizens in the settled community.
As I have said, I hope that the House will be reassured by my announcement of 9 October. We want to move forward quickly on that. The Government are committed to ensuring that Gypsies and Travellers are integrated in society, and enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. My hon. Friends the Members for Mid Bedfordshire and for South West Bedfordshire both talked about the life chances of, and health outcomes for, people in Gypsy and Traveller communities. Of course we want those to improve. I think that both sides of the House will agree that more needs to be done to ensure harmonious relations between communities.
I welcome the debate, which has reinforced my determination to look for ways to improve our response to such matters. As I have said, the Government will set out further details about the consultation shortly, and I invite all Members of the House to engage with that process.