Rishi Sunak – 2019 Speech on Travellers

Below is the text of the speech made by Rishi Sunak, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, in the House of Commons on 25 April 2019 in response to the speech made by Paul Beresford.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on securing this important debate. Reading through the materials to prepare for this evening, I saw very clearly his long-standing ​commitment to standing up for his constituents on, as he described it, this vexing issue. It was also clear that he has consistently pushed the Government to support his residents, and I commend him for that.

I am pleased to say that the Government take the issue of unauthorised encampments extremely seriously. Both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing have listened extensively to the views of those in this House on this highly sensitive and important issue and recognise the strong feelings and concerns raised by many Members. Just as my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley has articulated powerfully about his own constituents, many other hon. Members have also highlighted the sense of unease and intimidation that residents feel when an unauthorised encampment occurs, the frustration at being unable to access amenities and premises and the waste left and cost once an unauthorised encampment has moved on. The Government were also troubled to hear about the widespread perception that the rule of law does not apply to those who choose a nomadic lifestyle and that the sense of available enforcement powers did not protect settled communities properly—all points that my hon. Friend has made on many occasions previously.

The Government therefore sought evidence on this issue through a formal and substantive consultation. Our “Powers for dealing with unauthorised development and encampments” consultation received more than 2,000 responses, and I am pleased to say that the Government published our response just a couple of months ago. Among the various concerns raised by colleagues in the House and members of the public, particular issues were highlighted regarding illegal activity, enforcement or the lack thereof, concerns about planning policy and the green belt, and concerns about outcomes for the travelling community.

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, but we need to ensure that the system is fair for all members of our communities. That means ensuring that everybody has the same opportunities, is subject to the same laws and is free from the negative effects of those who choose to break the law.

I am pleased to say that the Government response puts forward a package of measures to address those issues, including consultation on stronger powers for the police to respond to unauthorised encampments, practical and financial support for local authorities to deal with unauthorised encampments, support for Traveller site provision, and support for the travelling community to improve life chances. I thank ministerial colleagues in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice for their assistance in this work.

I will summarise the various strands of work that the Government are now undertaking. In doing so, I will respond to the specific points raised by my hon. Friend. I will first address my hon. Friend’s concern regarding intentional unauthorised development—in particular, how intentional unauthorised development should be taken into account when planning permission is sought retrospectively. In 2015, the Government introduced a policy that made intentional unauthorised development a material consideration in the determination of planning applications and appeals. As set out in our response, we are concerned that harm is caused where the development ​of land has been undertaken in advance of obtaining planning permission; the Government have listened to my hon. Friend on this issue. The Government have now committed to consulting on options for strengthening this policy on intentional unauthorised development so that local authorities have the tools to address the effects of such development. This will help to ensure greater confidence and fairness in the planning system.

On a related matter, I reassure my hon. Friend that the Government remain committed to strong protection of the green belt, which my hon. Friend has also championed many times in this place. The Government have been very clear, through the national planning policy framework, that inappropriate development—including Traveller sites, whether temporary or permanent —is harmful to the green belt and should only be approved in very special circumstances. The document “Planning policy for traveller sites”, which was updated in 2015, makes it clear that personal circumstances and unmet need are unlikely to clearly outweigh harm to the green belt.

The planning system is of course continually reviewed, and I will take on board the comments made by my hon. Friend tonight as the Department looks at updating its guidance for Traveller sites to bring that in line with the national planning policy framework. Indeed, the Department always reserves the option of issuing planning practical guidance documents to fine tune our view on particular interpretations of planning guidance.

This Government are also committed to continuing to address the disparities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. As a result, we have provided £200,000 of funding for six projects that aim to improve outcomes in the areas of educational attainment, health and social integration. We have also funded 22 projects that support Roma communities across England through the controlling migration fund. Interventions include improving access to services, improving health outcomes, outreach and supporting children and English language learning. We have also provided two projects with £55,000 each to tackle hate crime against GRT communities.

I will finish by summarising our ongoing work on enforcement against unauthorised encampments, because I am aware that this has been a particular concern, as highlighted by my hon. Friend. I am pleased to say that we have identified a set of measures to extend the powers available to the police to enable unauthorised encampments to be tackled more effectively and hopefully to reduce the frustration felt by many constituents of my hon. Friend and others that these issues are not being dealt with as they would like.

As highlighted in our response to the recent consultation, the Government will seek parliamentary approval to amend sections 61 and 62A of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. These amendments will include increasing the period in which trespassers directed from land will be unable to return from three months to 12 months.

Sir Paul Beresford

Will that apply where the individuals concerned claim to own or actually own the land, or just on public-type land or other people’s land?

Rishi Sunak

This is a matter for the Home Office, which will soon be launching a public consultation on the specific nature of these measures. I am sure that it ​will welcome my hon. Friend’s views on how they should be implemented and the detail behind them. I would be happy to ensure that his views are passed on to the Department as it constructs the consultation.

The amendments will also include lowering from six to two or more the number of vehicles needing to be involved in an unauthorised encampment before police powers can be exercised and enabling the police to remove trespassers from land that forms part of the highway, which is another very specific barrier that has been identified.

My hon. Friend said that England should consider adopting the Irish model to criminalise unauthorised encampments. Like many others, he notes that this process in the Republic of Ireland had led to an increased number of Travellers in this country, and many have urged the Government to adopt the Irish model. I would like to reassure him and all those interested in pursuing this that the Government will conduct a review of how this can be achieved.

My Department will support local authorities with up to £1.5 million of funding to support planning enforcement. Finally, my hon. Friend raised temporary stop notices. These allow local authorities to act swiftly ​to tackle unauthorised developments, and I am pleased to tell him that the Secretary of State has confirmed that he is minded to extend the period for which these temporary orders can be put in place.

I am also pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State is looking forward to sitting down with him to discuss these issues in more detail and, in particular, to ensure we can learn from the experience of his constituents as we look to improve measures to tackle this greatly vexing issue.

I thank my hon. Friend for all his contributions to this debate. He should without question be commended for ensuring that the views and needs of his constituents are raised in this House with force and power and repeatedly with Ministers so that we can act to improve the lives of his residents through changing these policies. I hope that he feels reassured that the Government are listening to his concerns and progressing the commitments we made in response to the consultation. I look forward to working with him on these issues in the coming months.