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Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): I recognise the scene that my hon. Friend is describing to the Minister. It is all the more galling when there are spaces available on licensed sites but Travellers will not go there. Where there are vacancies on such sites, Travellers should be forced to go there. More importantly, there should be provision to prevent them from leapfrogging from one place to another. I understand my hon. Friend's case and I hope the Minister will respond robustly.
My seventh point is that the eviction order should prevent Travellers from resettling within the county boundaries except in an authorised site. In my constituency Travellers were finally moved from one site, only to settle just down the road, so the whole process had to start all over again. That happened not once, but six consecutive times within seven weeks, making clowns of the police, the council and local residents.
Eighthly, compensation for damage needs to be levied. There is currently no deterrent for despoiling sites or leaving waste behind. For example, at Springfield school it required specialist contractors to remove the waste. Even when the site is cleared and cut, it takes time for the field to be washed by the weather of some of what was left behind by the Travellers, which I shall not describe in detail.
When the Travellers left Springfield infants school last September, they were told not to use the field for a month. In April, after the winter weather, the school was just about to begin using the field again when the Travellers returned. Since that time, the youngsters have not been able to go back and use the site. They have been without a playing field for nine months.
Each time such a thing happens, the school budget suffers, as it costs £875 just to clear the field of debris. That amount does not cover any other of the processes, such as cutting, that may be required. Mine is one of the UK's most deprived constituencies, and schools there can ill afford to pay out such sums from their budgets. The head teacher has to choose between providing books and equipment for children struggling to do well at school, and cleaning up after that group of antisocial Travellers.
Last summer, Travellers in my constituency cost local council tax payers about £40,000 in damage and in environmental costs. I have yet to get an estimate for the cost of the court cases, but there is no doubt that it runs into thousands of pounds. Therefore, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the use of fixed penalty
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notices for littering. Where individuals refuse to pay, orders should be attached to their caravans and vehicles. Fixed penalty notices are difficult to administer when people refuse to give their names and permanent addresses, but it should be possible to build up information on the small number of antisocial Travellers through use of their permanent winter bases, as that is where their benefits are sent.
I also hope that the Minister will look at the Police Reform Act 2002, which allows property to be seized. That should be extended, so that police can clamp and seize cars, caravans and land assets if eviction notices are not obeyed, if fines are not paid and if damage caused by antisocial Travellers is not paid for. Of all the issues that anger my constituents, it is the ability of antisocial Travellers to despoil land with impunity and without effective redress that enrages them most. The Government must put a stop to that.
Ninthly, the Department for Constitutional Affairs should issue clear guidance to the courts to ensure that proceedings are much faster. Local delays with the Traveller group to which I have referred meant that local communities had to suffer to an unacceptable extent. Perhaps the DCA can learn from what has subsequently been agreed locally by Nottingham city council and our area courts service. I pay tribute to both organisations, and to the police, in the very difficult circumstances that I have set out. They have agreed that cases involving Travellers will be dealt with the same degree of urgency as domestic violence injunctions, although that remains subject to the judiciary being prepared to add such cases to the list. However, the DCA should ensure that that practice becomes commonplace. Government have a responsibility to devise effective protocols.
It is recommended that local council officers serving notices be accompanied by a police officer to prevent delays. That results from the fact that council officers going about their normal duties have been intimidated by dogs owned by the Travellers.
My tenth and final point is that the current law of trespassand the word "trespass" merely means "illegally passing through", perhaps only for a minute or twoneeds to be updated. I hope that the Minister will look at the concept of "extended trespass". That would mean that a person who stayed on someone else's property for longer than a specific timesay, three hourswould be committing an offence, and therefore liable to penalties and the payment of compensation. Everyone to whom I have spoken has pleaded that the time should be made specific, as should all other prohibitions in this area. Invariably, the legal term "reasonable" becomes a lawyer's playground at the expense of those who have to suffer extended antisocial behaviour.
I hope that the Minister and his new Travellers unit in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will look at my 10-point plan, and give my long-suffering constituents some relief. I invite the unit to visit my constituency so that its members can learn from our recent experiences.
I emphasise that none of the powers that I have suggested would be used against law-abiding Travellers. I hope that the changes will be welcomed by settled communities and by the majority of law-abiding Travellers and their organisations. It is in everyone's
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interests that effective provision exists to tackle the antisocial minority so that the rest of usin the settled and Traveller communities alikecan live together.
Finally, on a personal note, may I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box? The club of former Vice-Chamberlains is fairly exclusive, but he is a distinguished member of it. I am delighted by his promotion, which proves that merit is not always a bar to progress in this place.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): I begin by thanking my fellow out-of-trade member of the Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household trade union, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), for his very generous remarks, and for bringing this matter to the House's attention. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister recognises the very difficult problems that can arise when trying to find suitable accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers, and I acknowledge the considerable disturbance and distress experienced by my hon. Friend's constituents in this case.
We in the ODPM take these issues very seriously. We have been working hard, and will continue to do so, to find solutions to these problems and to alleviate the distress that local people are experiencing. In the last Session, we put in place a framework of powers and resources to allow local authorities to provide the necessary new authorised sites, and to take effective action against unauthorised sites. We now need to make sure that local authorities pick up those powers and use them effectively. The ODPM has established a dedicated Gypsy and Traveller unit to work with local authorities and to support them in that process.
We are also helping in a practical way: with money. Government funding is now being made available for sites. In 200506, the Gypsy sites refurbishment grant is available for new sites, as well as for the refurbishment of existing ones. Its aim is to increase the number of authorised pitches available to Gypsies and Travellers, and therefore to reduce the need for unauthorised sites. In addition, mainstream funding via the regional housing pot will also be made available for local authority and registered social landlord sites from 200607.
Our aim is to reduce tensions between Gypsies and Travellers and the settled community. But where situations such as those described by my hon. Friend arise, we believe, like him, that firm and prompt action is necessary: firm action to enforce against encampments in inappropriate places; firm action to provide the right sort of authorised sites in appropriate locations; and, when people are unwilling to respect the rights of others, as seems to be the case here, firm action to enforce against antisocial behaviour and environmental damage. Where persistent and repeated offences occur, action must be relentless in upholding the law. As I hope to show, there are powers to achieve this.
My hon. Friend has made a number of suggestions on how the law might be changed, to which I would like to respond. First, he pointed to the difficulty that cities such as Nottingham face in securing action under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 if there is no local
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authority-authorised site in the area. It might be helpful if I rehearse the full legal position. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 sets out police powers to deal with unauthorised encampments. Section 61 allows the police to direct trespassers to leave private land if the landowner has taken reasonable steps to ask them to leave, and if there is damage to land, threats or abuse, or more than six vehicles. The 2003 Act added stronger police powers. The new powers can be used if at least two persons are trespassing, if the trespassers have between them at least one vehicle, if the trespassers are present on the land with the common purpose of residing there for any period, and if there is a suitable authorised site to direct them to.
My hon. Friend suggested that the link with alternative provision in the area should be removed so that trespassers can be moved on more quickly, given the difficulty experienced by unitary authorities in particular, which cannot use the antisocial behaviour powers if the alternative site lies outside their boundary. I recognise that there are particular problems in Nottingham, where the city boundary is tightly drawn. Nevertheless, the aim of the power is to encourage local authorities to provide sites. My hon. Friend also suggested that the requirement that six or more vehicles must be present before section 61 can be used should be amended. Section 61 can in fact be used in respect of fewer than six vehicles if the Travellers have caused damage to land or used threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour to the occupier of the land.
My hon. Friend also urged the need for faster action. I agree. Fast action is achievable, but it depends on local agencies working closely together. We would encourage them to put in place local protocols to ensure close co-operation and effective use of the powers. In February 2004, the ODPM and the Home Office issued joint guidance on the management of unauthorised encampments, and it was updated in March to include guidance on the new Anti-social Behaviour Act powers. The guidance recommends that working protocols be put in place between local authorities and the police. In areas where they exist, they have proved very effective.
A further suggestion was that land with a clear pre-existing use should be safeguarded in legislation. Section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 allows the police to remove trespassers from all types of land. My hon. Friend will be pleased to learn that the ODPM and Home Office joint guidance on managing unauthorised encampments gives specific advice on dealing with encampments on school car parks and playing fields. Each encampment location must be considered on its merits against various criteria. The guidance makes it clear that there are locations where encampment will not be acceptable under any circumstances. They include school car parks and playing fields, and recreation and public playing fields.
I have every sympathy in respect of the problems described over enforcement action where there has been vandalism and criminal damage. Issues about identification and securing witness statements apply, of course, to any criminal activity and are not particular to the Gypsy and Traveller community. Again, I think those must be primarily operational matters for the police. The powers exist: it is a question of the police
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using them effectively. We recognise that fear of reprisals is a key factor in preventing the reporting of crime, and we take intimidation very seriously. Specific witness intimidation offences cover witnesses in both criminal and civil proceedings.
We have a wide-ranging strategy in place to ensure that agencies throughout the criminal justice system provide appropriate support to those witnesses who feel vulnerable or intimidated. For example, professional witnesses can be used where witnesses are too frightened to come forward or where some independent verification is required to resolve complaints of antisocial behaviour. The use of professional witnesses as an alternative method of gathering direct evidence is thought to be particularly useful where victims are too frightened to come forward as witnesses.
My hon. Friend also suggested that an eviction order should apply for a longer period than three months and that eviction orders should prevent Travellers from resettling within county boundaries unless within an authorised site. Given that we are talking about a direction administered by the police, without reference to the court, there is a question of what can be considered as proportionate for the police to administer. We believe that three months achieves an appropriate balance as it is in line with other similar direction powers.
We recognise the problem of "hedge hopping", mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, where Travellers who are directed to leave one unauthorised site move a short distance and set up another unauthorised encampment. That is why the new powers in the Anti-social Behaviour Act create an offence of returning to the local authority area as a trespasser, when a direction is given under the new powers.
Local authorities also have strong powers to deal with antisocial behaviour. Antisocial behaviour orders now have a proven track record and can be used against members of the Travelling community, just as they can against others. Changes introduced in the Police Reform Act 2002 mean that ASBOs can extend across wider geographical areas than just local government areas. That tackles the problem of antisocial behaviour by individuals who are likely to move to other areas of the country and continue their antisocial behaviour.
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