§ 7.52 p.m.
§ Lord Avebury
rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what they intend to do to address the social deprivation of gypsies and travellers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to your Lordships who stayed until this late hour to discuss a subject which is of great importance, but which receives little attention. Travelling people are the most socially deprived of all the minorities in England, but their needs receive comparatively little attention. Their accommodation, educational attainment, health and job opportunities are all inferior to those of the rest of the population, and the disadvantages they suffer, which are handed down from one generation to the next, are compounded by neglect.
We are not immediately concerned with travellers in Wales, but I would like to draw attention to the Welsh Assembly's work, because it has conducted a survey and concluded that there can be no doubt that, in many respects, gypsies and travellers are one of the most discriminated-against groups in Wales. The Assembly has made a series of recommendations which are intended to deliver equality in service 1564 provision for travellers. From now on, I shall refer to "travellers" as meaning gypsies and travellers for the sake of conciseness.
I wanted to mention the work of the Welsh Assembly because many of the recommendations it makes read across to England; for example, that in referring to gypsies and travellers, public authorities should capitalise the word, which they do not always do, even in your Lordships' House. I am sorry to say that the Minute Room insists on putting small T for travellers whenever I write large T. I hope that that can be corrected.
Most importantly of all, the Welsh Assembly recommends that there should be a duty to provide accommodation for travellers. That is a point that I shall return to later on.
When I asked the Prime Minister to refer the needs of travellers to the Social Exclusion Unit, he said that he would make sure that my suggestion was borne in mind, but that competition for new projects was very strong. Three years down the line, nothing has happened. The Deputy Prime Minister's housing Green Paper, Quality and Choice: A Decent Home for All, did not mention gypsies once, and the policy statement which followed contained one paragraph about the refurbishment of their sites, but nothing about new homes. Not one penny of the £22 billion announced by the Deputy Prime Minister for sustainable communities in February is to be spent on accommodation or facilities for travellers. They are to be fobbed off with £16 million over the next two years, part of which may be spent on transit sites but none on permanent sites.
The Human Rights Act was intended to promote equality between different ethnic groups but only just over one in three local authorities have reviewed their policies in relation to travellers to see which of them is Strasbourg compatible. 'The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, told me in a Written Answer that any person claiming to be a victim of a local authority's failure to comply with the Act had a right to bring proceedings. Noble Lords will agree that that will not be too easy for someone who is homeless on the roadside.
As the Minister knows, however, there has been one important case in which the High Court found that a local authority was in breach of its duty because respect for private and family life meant that there is a positive obligation to facilitate the gypsy way of life. Can the Minister confirm that the homeless code of guidance is being revised to take that judgment into account?
The Homelessness Act requires housing authorities to produce a strategy for dealing with homelessness by the end of July, and that must set out how the authority is going to prevent homelessness and provide enough accommodation for people who are homeless or likely to become homeless. Since there are 2,500 traveller caravans on unauthorised sites, and the people living in them are by definition homeless, according to the definition in the Housing Act 1996, one would have expected to see vigorous action to provide sites as the deadline approaches. Not a single extra pitch has been provided, to my knowledge.
1565 The Race Relations (Amendment) Act requires all public authorities to assess the way that their policies affect minorities and to take remedial action to correct inequalities. They must publish a race equality statement and monitor their own performance. I am not aware of any steps that are taken by councils to remove the gross disadvantages experienced by travellers.
Now, perhaps, there is a new opportunity, if the Government accept the recommendations by Pat Niner that there should be a clear, widely understood policy on accommodation, so that travellers have a secure base to which they can return if they are nomadic, and where they can remain permanently if they wish to settle down. That is the key to attacking the problem of social deprivation among travellers, as we have known for the past 40 years; it is the principle underlying the Traveller Law Reform Bill, which was reintroduced by Mr David Atkinson in another place, and the Early-Day Motion in the name of Mr Kevin McNamara. It is the goal of the new Parliamentary Travellers Group, which has just been formed, and it is the theme of the Liberal Democrat policy development paper, Gypsies and other Travellers, on which the Minister in another place, Mr Tony McNulty, commented favourably in the past few weeks.
There is also widespread recognition of the fact that friction between travellers and the rest of the population arises largely in relation to unauthorised sites, on which the lack of clean water, sanitation and refuse disposal inevitably generate problems.
The Government say that they are committed to improving the lives of travellers—but they have yet to respond to the Niner report after seven months—and to aiming for,sustainable solutions that are agreeable to all",to use the Minister's words. That means waiting for ever. Over the years since the 1968 Act, the problem was always to get agreement between counties and districts on where to put sites, and local residents would always fight proposals for a site in their neighbourhood. In the end, decisions must be made that will not be popular with everybody, and the sensible way forward is to reinstate the duty of local authorities to provide enough accommodation for gypsies,residing in or resorting to their area",to use the phraseology of the 1968 Act, and at the same time to get an agreement between the Government and local authorities on the numbers to be put in each area, as Sir John Cripps suggested as long ago as 1977.
What Ministers have proposed so far is grossly inadequate. The £17 million refurbishment grant over three years may be compared with Pat Niner's estimate that £123 million over 30 years is needed merely to maintain the 308 sites that were in use in early 2002. That is not even to reinstate the remaining 16 sites which had degenerated to the point of being unusable. If spending continued at that rate, it might be just enough to prevent further losses, but in the next two years, 2004–05 and 2005–06, they plan to spend 1566 £16 million on refurbishment and the provision of transit sites. So the money has to be split between the two.
The policy of leaving the provision of sites entirely to the private sector is failing, as we have repeatedly told Ministers since 1994, when the 1968 Act was repealed. Between January 2002 and January 2003—the figures for which have just been announced—the number of pitches on private sites went up by 44, but at the same time the number on council sites decreased by 92. The effect of all that is that the number on unauthorised sites shot up by 351. That follows an increase the previous year of 327. So in two years one has 680 more caravans parked on unauthorised sites as a result of the policy of Fenéantisme that we have had from the Government.
The effect of the 1994 repeal was masked for a few years, because council sites were still in the pipeline being constructed, and because there was an unexplained fall in the total number of traveller caravans in the first two years after 1994. But now the chickens are coming home to roost. It is a scandal that traveller homelessness is on the increase, with two out of every 10 families already with nowhere to go. It is unjust and unacceptable for the Government to be offering local authorities increased powers to manage unauthorised encampments when it is their own failure to do anything about providing accommodation for the last six years that has brought about the present crisis.
At the very least, the Government should allow the Housing Corporation to lend money on traveller sites so that registered social landlords can play some part. They should also promote a few pilot schemes for the provision of group housing as in the Republic of Ireland, which the Housing Corporation could already fund. The Government could invite local authorities to make land available for this purpose, and thus to meet their obligations under the Homelessness Act.
No one pretends that these are simple problems, but we shall not solve any of them until there is, as Pat Niner says, a clear, widely understood policy for accommodation, to which has to be integrated properly resourced programmes for equality in education, health and social welfare. We want the Government to set out their goals and how they are to be achieved. They have done a lot for minorities; now it is the time for travellers to enjoy some of the fruits of equality that are the right and prerogative of us all.
§ 8.3 p.m.
§ The Earl of Listowel
My Lords. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for securing the time for this important debate. I declare my interest as a landowner. I regret that the only experience I have of directly working with a gypsy traveller child was several years ago and spanned six weeks at one afternoon a week. However, I worked last year on the passage of the Education Bill, focusing on issues surrounding access to education for looked-after children. Some of the issues we discussed then are germane to this debate.
1567 There is a well recognised history of deprivation of education as regards traveller children, stretching back at least 40 years, which began with the Plowden report in 1996. An Ofsted report, The Education of Travelling Children, stated:Access to the curriculum for secondary-aged children remains a matter of grave concern. There are possibly as many as 10,000 children at this phase who are not even registered with a school".There are issues about registration; the attendance of secondary schoolchildren, which averages about 75 per cent and is markedly lower than that of any other ethnic group; and lower levels of achievement than other groups.
Clearly, there are problems in engaging a semi-nomadic community and settled society. There is also distrust by the gypsy traveller community of settled society which one can understand, given the history of persecution in this country over several centuries, including during the Second World War on the Continent. There are other examples.
We must do more to address the issue of the failure to allow access to secondary school education for possibly 10,000 or more children. I should like to concentrate on this issue and ask the Government what they are doing seriously to address this problem. Indeed, they are already doing much and I pay tribute to their policy of inclusion generally which impacts on this group of people. Sure Start is a very important programme which has involved large investment for the early years. That is repeatedly emphasised in the literature as being an important way of engaging gypsy traveller children in mainstream education. If one can ensure that their families have a good experience of pre-school education they are more likely to continue to primary and, one hopes, to secondary education.
The additional funding made available to schools in difficult areas through education action zones and for those in areas of urban deprivation through the Excellence in Cities initiative have an important part to play in improving access to education for gypsy traveller children. I visited the Star primary school in Newham a few months back, headed by Marion Rosen. It is a school with a majority of asylum-seeking children. It is well recognised as being in an area of high deprivation. The school was under special measures for about two years, but with the introduction of Marion Rosen and her inspiring leadership, it is now described in the latest Ofsted inspection report as being a good school and as especially good at including asylum-seeking children and those with special educational needs.
The Government have recognised the need for leadership in this area and have established a centre of excellence for the training of head teachers. Again, the literature in this area emphasises the importance of good leadership to increasing inclusion, including of gypsy traveller children. In the Education Bill, more leeway was allowed to schools in terms of the application of the national curriculum so that the best and most appropriate teaching was provided to children who did not necessarily fit in with the mainstream. It is a constant theme of the literature that gypsy traveller children and their families often find 1568 that the national curriculum is not relevant to their own culture. But when that is reviewed by schools, and when elements of gypsy history and culture are introduced, it is an important way of encouraging confidence and engagement in the school.
Last year Ofsted reported that we now have the best teachers in our schools since it started its work. That is a key part of being more inclusive. We need to have high expectations of traveller children. Good teachers have high expectations of all their children.
I also welcome the work of the group for school inclusion. I welcome, too, the £155 million the Government invest through the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant for all those children from ethnic minorities. But we have to recognise that more investment is needed. These children suffer from cultural impoverishment if they do not receive their secondary school education. They do not meet Pythagoras or Aristotle; they never get to know Romeo and Juliet. They are deprived of their rights to a decent, broad education.
In the House we now have a large representation of women. We have some people from the Afro-Caribbean, Chinese and Asian communities. As far as I know, we have no representation from the gypsy traveller community. The gypsy traveller community is unlikely to have a voice. They are likely to be neglected. Their important deprivation is likely to be ignored as long as we fail to ensure that many of their children have a full education.
Other consequences of being under-educated are a higher likelihood of involvement in criminality, as we all know; and a higher likelihood of pregnancy at a young age, which is likely to lead to lower life chances for their children—and so continue the cycle of deprivation. I ask Her Majesty's Government what their aspirations are for those children. What do they hope for for the future? What is the role in particular of the Traveller Education Service? How have the Government improved the service since 1997 and what are their plans for its further development?
As Ministers will be aware, the service has an essential role to play in terms of, for instance, admissions. If a child arrives at a school in the middle of a school year, having perhaps moved frequently before, the Traveller Education Service will help the child to obtain a school uniform; perhaps secondhand, by one means or another. In the transition from primary to secondary school, when so many children are lost, the Traveller Education Service, with its good relationship with the traveller community, is able to work to ensure a good transition. The Traveller Education Service works in partnership with education welfare offices to ensure that children do not absent themselves from school.
There have clearly been improvements in attendance and achievement. That was noted in the Ofsted report and must be attributed largely to the achievements of the Traveller Education Service. How are the Government building on that success? Are they increasing resources to that essential service, and how are they targeting the available resources?
1569 The helpful Department for Education and Employment research report RR238 points out that the schools with the most effective practice invest significant management resources in the establishment of good relationships with parents and pupils. It gives an example of what that means in practice. A teacher assigned to working with those communities says:I know the families very well. I have known them for 13 years and they know me. I have signed their passport forms, driving licences and sometimes a parent will come into school with a letter or something they don't understand and I try and help them with that. The school is a place where they know they can get help".That kind of long-term investment by those staff is necessary, but obviously it is resource-intensive. The time of the staff is an important and limited resource. Can the Minister give an assurance that every school with gypsy traveller children on its roll has a designated, named person of the kind I have just described? Are Her Majesty's Government ensuring that adequate management resources are provided to ensure good relationships with parents and pupils?
We cannot afford to have perhaps over 10,000 gypsy traveller children missing out on their education. I urge the Minister and his colleagues to consider targeting more resources on the Traveller Education Service. I would also urge the Minister to consider how he can ensure that schools are sufficiently resourced to allow staff to develop essential relationships with traveller parents and communities. I look forward to the Minister's response.
§ 8.16 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Chester
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on bringing this debate to the House. I confess with a measure of guilt that I was not as aware as I should have been of the distinctive contribution of the travelling communities to our society, and their particular needs. In researching the background to the debate, I have been glad to be able to take the opportunity to remedy that a little. I am particularly grateful for the briefing I have received from some of those most involved in supporting the travelling communities and drawing attention to their needs.
Speaking only for the Church of England for the moment, the diocese of Salisbury among our dioceses deserves special mention as having a priest who is particularly dedicated to this work. I was also pleased to access research undertaken on behalf of the Welsh and Scottish Assemblies, in part already referred to, as well as to receive briefing from some of the statutory and voluntary agencies.
Perhaps I may start a little further afield. The diocese of Chester has a special link with the Anglican Province of Melanesia, which comprises the Solomon Islands and Manuatu in the Pacific, amounting to seven dioceses in total. I am pleased that a predecessor of mine linked us with that part of the world rather than the Arctic or one or two other places that one could think of.
1570 It was both a privilege and pleasure for me to make an extensive visit to the province and to visit all the main centres of population. The people there have very little money, but I never encountered anyone begging or suffering from malnutrition. It seemed that everyone had someone to look after them. In the local pidgin English, each person is someone else's wantok or relative. Life is lived in large, extended families, although within those extended families there is still a particular concentration on the nuclear family.
When I returned to the United Kingdom and to my house in Chester, I was struck by the many contrasts. The most obvious one was that of our wealth and sophistication, but alongside I was also struck by people who live in the streets and who would come up and beg; people sleeping rough and who had nowhere to go. Quite soon after I got back, two lads, both in their late teens or early 20s and quite well spoken, called at my door and asked politely whether they could borrow a tin opener to open their tins of baked beans for their evening meal. They were two of a stream of people who call at my house. I contrasted that with the fact that I witnessed no homelessness or such activity in the Solomons.
Other contrasts would include, for example, the basis on which land is held or owned. We are used to property rights of a fairly absolute kind, with the ability to possess and to sell freehold. In the Solomons, land is held on a custom basis; that is, it belongs to a given village or family and is allocated as required to everyone living in the village or belonging to the family. The one Anglo-Saxon bishop still serving in the Solomons—he has been there for 30 years—emphasised to me the value of this way of relating people and communities to the land. Indeed, in those Solomon Islands where modern western ways have been tried, largely around the capital of Honiara, it has tended to produce unrest and conflict. I say that to illustrate the different ways in which cultural groups can organise their lives. For all their differences, I have been struck by the similarities between the traditional ways of life in the Solomons that I encountered and those of the travelling communities in this country that should be allowed to continue.
This debate is intended to draw attention to social deprivation among the travelling communities, which is entirely right. As our society has progressively become more organised and regulated, the traditional way of life of the travelling communities has come under increasing and inevitable pressure. For reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, outlined, that has impacted in a particular way on their ability to travel with some security as to where they can exist from time to time.
Our challenge is to offer the travelling communities access to employment opportunities, welfare and education. I endorse entirely the words of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. I have been deeply impressed by the ability of many schools in the diocese of Chester to rise to the challenge of educating travelling children and to see them as an enrichment of the school community.
1571 That access needs to be in a form that respects the rights of travelling communities to continue their traditional lifestyles but also enriches society. We can too easily become patronising and speak about "us" and "them", as though it were a one-way traffic. I will refer later to the reverse process.
There are ample statistics to demonstrate that members of the travelling communities suffer from various disadvantages to their health, compared with the average. Life expectancy in the travelling communities is as much as 10 years lower for a man and 12 years for a woman—a stark statistic indeed. A report in the British Medical Journal on maternal deaths from 1997 to 1999 suggested that deaths among women in the travelling communities werequite possibly at the highest rate among all ethnic groups".On the broader health front, an article in the Journal of Public Health Medicine in 2001, based on extensive research in the traveller community in and around Sheffield, concluded thatthe health status of gypsy travellers is significantly poorer than in the lowest socio-economic UK population group".It is interesting to note that health statistics were similar for travellers who still live in caravans and move around to some degree and those who were more traditionally housed.
I will not rehearse the precise statistics in the health papers but the key question is why the statistics for the travelling communities, even when they are accommodated in relatively fixed dwellings, is so low. The answer is paradoxical. Either it is harder for the travelling communities to access healthcare because they tend to be on the move and do not conform to the norms for accessing healthcare or they are reluctant to do so because of distrust.
On the other hand, there is clear evidence that the reduced opportunities that many travellers have to follow their traditional lifestyle when accommodated in conventional housing is itself a major cause of stress and ill health. Our response must correspondingly be two-sided. We should make it easier for the travelling communities to access healthcare in sensitive ways adapted to their culture. We should as far as possible honour the aspirations of the travelling communities to continue their lifestyles, which will undoubtedly evolve in a dialogue with the sophisticated world around them.
In seeking to make it easier for the travelling communities to access healthcare, we need to encourage and perhaps even to require health trusts to have strategies that focus on the needs of their ethnic minorities. That suggests the use of healthcare professionals who understand the culture of the travelling communities and can relate to them and other ethnic groups as well, and gain their confidence. I am aware that that is already happening and no doubt the Minister will give me further information, but I sense that the matter needs to go further. The statistics for life expectancy speak for themselves.
The second strand is equally important—to honour the aspirations of the travelling communities as far as possible to continue their distinctive lifestyles and to 1572 permit their distinctive cultures to evolve. That is what they want unequivocally to do. That has been true across the generations. I was interested to read a research project by Save the Children relating to younger members of the travelling communities in Scotland. When the young people were asked what was the best thing about belonging to their communities, the overwhelming answer was, "Our freedom and nomadic way of life". We need to recognise that that will not go away. I add that I find my own life rather too nomadic, but that illustrates the differences that exist. As previous speakers have made clear, in recent years the travelling communities have found it much harder to achieve that in a non-stressful way.
I shall conclude with some remarks on why we should seek to honour that desire to maintain traveller and gypsy traditions. We should not do so grudgingly or by concession, or merely on the grounds of individual rights, but with a deep sense of respect and gratitude for the contribution to the wider riches of society that the traveller culture can make. Their history in this country has been one of discrimination from Henry VIII onwards—and often of abuse, including, relating to children, much bullying when they have been in mainstream schools. However, because of the great stress on anti-bullying policies in schools today, that is improving.
I do not doubt that at times there have been genuine problems which should be addressed by the authorities in a proper way. The law applies to us all, although when we make law in this Chamber I sometimes think that we should bend over backwards a little more to take account of the proper needs and aspirations of the minority groups that those laws will influence.
I do not wish to romanticise traveller or gypsy communities. There is no doubt a great deal that can be gained by an interaction of those communities with modern society in this country. However, we need to open up those channels in a way that is genuinely mutual, reciprocal and non-threatening.
Let me return to our experience as a diocese in our links with the Solomons. It has deeply enriched us to have clergy from the Solomons working in our parishes. In particular, one priest, who is in Episcopal orders, has been working in a parish in the diocese for six years. His ministry has been a breath of fresh air—just because he comes out of, and represents, a culture which in some deep respect is very different from our own. When he was asked to take his first funeral at a crematorium, he was simply astonished at our casual, almost throwaway, quasi-supermarket-inspired ritual of death with a 20-minute slot on the crematorium conveyor belt. Back home a funeral would have taken a full day as the family gathered with the whole community to mark, mourn and signify the passing of one of their members.
That is just how the travelling communities tend to mark the death of one of their members. They do it with elaborate ritual; someone stays with the body of the deceased in a specially-furnished caravan until the body has been reverently buried, with their close 1573 possessions being carefully distributed or buried with them. I do not wish to endorse details of the ceremony, but the respect for human life which that ceremony reflects is something that I often think we could learn from in wider society.
The Chief Rabbi. Dr Jonathan Sachs, recently published an important book, The Dignity of Difference. One of the key challenges of the 21st century will be to learn how to live alongside other communities with different traditions, and to allow those traditions, as far as possible in a non-threatening and non-stressful way, to evolve in an inevitable dialogue with the modern world. That is true both across the globe as a whole, as we saw in yesterday's debate on globalisation—as that shrinks international distances—and within countries—and perhaps especially in Britain after all the immigration of the past 50 years and the ongoing movement of peoples.
Traveller communities represent some of the oldest, perhaps the oldest ethnic minority group in our midst. How we learn to treat them better and indeed to learn from them, may well have wider consequences for the overall stability and richness of our country than we often realise.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I too would like to thank my noble friend Lord Avebury for initiating this very important debate. The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right. Few of us realise how deprived this group in our society have been, nor that they have been part of our society for a very long time. Like the right reverend Prelate, I have not had a great deal of involvement with the gypsy or traveller community.
Two issues came to mind when I came to face this debate. As an aspiring Member of the other place, I got involved with a gypsy site in the south of the Guildford constituency I worked in. The problem was one of disenfranchisement. We were anxious to make sure that those on this permanent site benefited. It was a permanent site that had been in dispute for 17 years. It was owned by the gypsy families concerned but their right to establish a permanent caravan site had been disputed by local residents for 17 years. In the end, a high profile High Court case, with the local authorities supporting the gypsies, solved the issue. They are still there and they are a group of extended families who now live very much in harmony with the local community.
The other picture that came to mind was that I spent the last 20 years as an academic at the University of Sussex. I lived in Guildford and commuted quite frequently. Beside the new Brighton bypass there is a site that is constantly used by travellers as an unauthorised site. One saw this regular routine of a number of caravans and lorries building up. Then one would see the big pick-up trucks sitting on the top of the hill, ready to go down and take them away. The next day one saw some of the caravans being hauled out and they would be gone. Then within three or four weeks the constant movement would start all over again.
1574 These two events probably epitomise some of the problems that we face in what is a very sorry story of racism and prejudice. We have flouted our own race discrimination and human rights legislation.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned that he doubted that there was any member of this ethnic minority in this House. There are probably no members of that ethnic minority who are magistrates, school governors or policemen, even though we put such emphasis on having ethnic minority representation in all those spheres of life. This process of moving them on and moving them on creates problems and the social deprivation seen in their communities today.
I was interested in the statistics given by my noble friend, Lord Avebury. At the last count there were 13,612 gypsy caravans and 13,058 sites. But of those sites, at least 1,000 and probably closer to 2,000 are actually unusable and unused. I understand that 8,000 or so are local authority sites, while 4,500 are private sites. Twenty-six per cent of the sites are situated next to motorways, 13 per cent are next to runways, 8 per cent are next to commercial and industrial sites, 12 per cent are next to rubbish tips, and 4 per cent are next to sewage farms. Very frequently, the latter are noisy and dirty sites. Therefore, it is not very surprising that we find that the health of this group is affected by the conditions of these sites.
Similarly, given the constant process of moving on because of the use of unauthorised sites, it is not surprising that we see such deprivation in the education of these children. Like the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, I am wearing my hat as the spokesman for education. I was especially interested in considering the question of education. Indeed, it is extraordinary that the Education Act 1996 sought to protect parents from prosecution if they could prove that their children were kept away from school by the need to travel. Therefore, we obliged them only to attend school on 100 days of the year—that is, 200 sessions a year, instead of the normal 400 sessions on almost 200 days that is generally required for our children.
We accept that those children need only attend school for half the number of days normally required. Local authorities are obliged to find places for traveller children; and, indeed, they run traveller education services. I fully agree with both the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the right reverend Prelate in this respect. There are often very good examples of what is done for travellers, given the circumstances. Under Section 488, the Education Act 1996 provided funding for such services. However, I am not sure whether local authorities would provide those services if they were not funded.
Nevertheless, we have had a series of Ofsted reports that have condemned the quality of education provided for traveller children. We know that those children are not high achievers; that they are disproportionately absent from school; and disproportionately likely to be excluded from school. In fact, 80 per cent of those who leave school are 1575 regarded as being functionally illiterate; in other words, 80 per cent of those children flunk key stage 4 in our schools. It is quite a thought. As a nation, we are ashamed that 20 per cent of our adult population are functionally illiterate and are not able to look up a plumber in the Yellow Pages. However, among the traveller community, the figure is 80 per cent. It is a shocking statistic.
The latest Ofsted report, Managing Support for the Attainment of Pupils from Minority Ethnic Groups, noted that there had been very little improvement, although it did note very positive efforts by the traveller education services, which were often at odds with the practice of the eviction of families and the constant moving on from unauthorised sites. However, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned, there are a number of good examples of practice. I noticed one example from the Oxford Experience, where a teacher said:We made a big map of the British Isles and all the children put down and moved model cars to all the places that they had visited. All the Gypsy Traveller children were able to speak about the places they had visited and then we started talking about travelling. All the children in the class enjoyed this and learnt [a lot] from it".As the right reverend Prelate mentioned, it is an enriching experience to have people from a different culture; and, indeed, a very important one.
In its report of October 2001, Managing Support for the Attainment of Pupils from Ethnic Minority Groups, Ofsted mentioned:When time was devoted to joint planning and teaching about Gypsy Traveller history and culture… [this] added much to the knowledge and understanding of all the pupils in the class and made a marked contribution to the self-esteem of pupils from Gypsy Traveller families and to their general attainment".We have quite a large number of gypsy families in Surrey—we have a long tradition of gypsies there. A good feature has been the establishment in the past two years of the Surrey community travellers' forum, in which travellers participate and talk with the local authority about developments. This has begun to open up a new development for the travelling community in Surrey and has helped to ease relationships with some of the local authorities there.
The right reverend Prelate spoke about deprivation and health. To my mind, it is not the slightest bit surprising that infant mortality rates, the prevalence of coronary heart disease, respiratory diseases, and so forth, are so much higher, given the sites that many travelling communities have to occupy.
The question then arises: what do we need to do about this? My noble friend Lord Avebury mentioned the Traveller Law Reform Bill. If it had become law, it would have improved matters. Nevertheless, as he said, we need to go further than just facilitate site provision by local authorities. We probably need to go back to the 1968 Act so that there is a much more positive duty on local authorities to do something about the situation.
Similarly, rather than just establishing a gypsy and traveller accommodation agency, the Government need a strategy, something we have not seen from 1576 them. The Niner report contains some very important conclusions, but, as always, the Government have used this piece of research in order to procrastinate yet further. In October last year, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said:Ministers will need some time to consider the implications of the sites research and how it will inform future policy development".—[Official Report, 30/10/02; col. 197.]In all conscience, have they not had enough time to think about policy development? It is time that the Government, who put such great store by social inclusion, come up with a much more positive policy towards this community.
I should like to end by quoting a piece from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of' the Child and its findings about the UK, which were not very complimentary. It noted:The Committee is concerned at the discrimination against children belonging to the Irish and Roma Travellers which is reflected among others by the higher rate of mortality among these children, their segregated education, the conditions of their accommodation and attitudes towards them. The Committee is also concerned at the existing gap between policy and effective delivery of services. In line with its previous recommendations, the Committee recommends that the State party devise—in a consultative and participatory process with these groups and their children—a comprehensive and constructive plan of action to effectively target the obstacles in the enjoyment of rights by these groups".These are very necessary words, and I hope we shall hear something positive from the Minister this evening.
§ 8.44 p.m.
§ Lord Hanningfield
I, too, thank the noble Lord. Lord Avebury, for bringing this issue to the attention of the House. That gypsies and travellers suffer from social deprivation—or social exclusion, as it is often called—is beyond doubt. We have already heard some statistics that demonstrate this from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester has referred to health aspects.
I should like to reiterate a few of these statistics. Some 98 per cent of gypsies and travellers die before the age of 65, and infant mortality is three times the national average. I wish to add some statistics to complement those given by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. On education, attainment at the secondary level is disastrously below national averages. As many as 10,000 children are not registered for secondary education at all, and only 12 gypsy or traveller children are likely to be in further or higher education at any time. We are particularly proud that in Essex we have some girls from traveller families doing A-levels, which is most unusual. Normally, it is the boys who stay on in continuing education.
Those statistics should be of concern not only to traveller communities but to all of us. You cannot build a decent society on foundations of systematic social exclusion. Social deprivation and social exclusion cause problems for the whole of society, not 1577 just that part of it directly affected. That is why the issue raised today by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is important and worthy of our attention.
Before going on to talk about specific areas of social deprivation, I should like to reflect on the history of prejudice towards gypsies and travellers, as it puts our debate today in context. Several noble Lords have already touched on the matter, but I should like to add my comments, as these are important issues and I believe that it is helpful to restate them. As an aside, I should say that several gypsy families have married into farming communities over the centuries, so there may be more gypsy blood in this House than we might imagine.
There are currently something in the region of 200,000 to 300,000 gypsies or travellers living in this country. Since they arrived in the 16th century, they have been subject to prejudice and persecution. Legislation over the past 150 years has sought increasingly to restrict the ability of gypsies to pursue their traditional mode of living. Anyone who has travelled extensively in eastern Europe, as I have done, will recognise that this attitude towards gypsies is not localised but is prevalent across the Continent. In fact, the prejudice that undoubtedly exists in this country towards gypsies does not compare in any way to the prejudice, persecution and stark deprivation that these communities suffer in some parts of eastern Europe.
Deploring the prejudice to which gypsies are subject is one thing, but what we cannot do is simply pretend that it does not exist. It is a part of human nature to be suspicious of what is different. Gypsies, partly as a result of social deprivation, but also partly as a result of lifestyle choices, exist on the margins of modern society. There is no doubt that a minority of gypsies engage in criminal or anti-social activity, which tends to reinforce the social exclusion of all gypsies, who are then tarred with the same brush. It is a vicious circle.
The solution to this problem is twofold. We must tackle the social exclusion to which gypsies are subject—and I look forward to hearing from the Minister today how the Government intend to do that. But we must also deal with those gypsies or travellers who are engaged in illegal or anti-social behaviour, as we would with anyone engaged in such activity. Those pockets of troublemakers actually do more damage to their communities than anyone else, and local citizens have a right to expect that action will be taken against them when problems arise.
I turn now to some of the specific causes of social exclusion. Let us start with education. The 1999 Ofsted report, Raising the Attainment of Minority Ethnic Pupils, found that gypsy children have the lowest results of any ethnic minority group and are the sector most at risk of exclusion in the education system. We cannot tackle social exclusion unless we tackle educational exclusion, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said. Education is the key to integrating minority communities into the wider society. If we are to deal properly with the problems social exclusion causes, it is vital that we get access to education right. The difficulty with educating children of communities who traditionally are itinerant is clear. 1578 However, there is evidence that access to education has improved over the past few years. Much of the improvement can be attributed to the work of local authorities. We have heard some criticism of local authorities today, but I should like to talk a bit about what they do.
In Essex, the county that I lead, we have an excellent traveller education service which is at the leading edge of good practice. We offer traveller parents support to access school places for their children and we offer schools the support they need to help maintain and raise the achievement of gypsy and traveller children. We do so because we take seriously our responsibility to lead our community. We recognise that tackling the anti-social behaviour sometimes associated with social exclusion can best be done through education. In the long run that will benefit the health and vitality of our community.
Health is the other dimension of the social exclusion of gypsies and travellers on which I want to touch. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester said, there is no doubt but that gypsies and travellers suffer impaired access to health and social care. As a result, the general health and life expectancy of the gypsy and traveller population is, as I said, well below that of the rest of society.
Social services departments play an important part in addressing these problems by working closely with gypsies and travellers to provide them with the support they need. For example, in some areas of Essex we have dedicated community development nurses for gypsies and travellers who help to ensure access to GPs. Also, on one of our permanent sites in Essex we facilitate an afternoon clinic attended by a health visitor on a fortnightly basis. If we could afford it we would do more. These initiatives are vitally important for tackling a key component of social deprivation. I would he interested to hear from the Minister whether the Government have any plans to provide further support to local authorities who provide such services.
I turn to the issue of site provision and accommodation for gypsies and travellers. This is not a marginal issue in the context of this debate. It is at the heart of what we are discussing, because it is often problems arising from inadequate or inappropriate site provision that reinforce the problems of social exclusion. As I understand the present legal position, the Caravan Sites Act 1968 placed a duty on local authorities in England and Wales to provide static sites for gypsies, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said. That requirement was removed by the then Conservative government in 1994 through the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. The objective of that legislation was to make it easier for local authorities to move on gypsies and travellers where they were causing a nuisance.
It seems to me that that policy objective could have been right. No one should have to tolerate anti-social or criminal behaviour from any section of the community, and local authorities should be empowered to take the swift and effective action that is necessary to tackle these disturbances as quickly as possible. I believe that that is 1579 in the interests both of local communities and the majority of gypsies and travellers who inevitably suffer because of the infractions of the minority.
Clearly, however, the 1994 legislation has not in practice proved effective. For a number of reasons local authorities have been reluctant to use it to effect evictions. But the problem of anti-social behaviour and illegal sites has not abated. In many parts of the country it has got worse. For example, in my own county of Essex we have recently seen examples of illegal encampments on green-belt land. That has caused a great deal of concern in local communities and led to the honourable Member for Billericay introducing in another place a Bill designed to enable local authorities to respond more quickly and effectively to that kind of activity. At the same time, the Bill recognised that those problems could not be solved unless there was adequate site provision for gypsies and travellers who genuinely want to abide by the law.
It seems to me sensible that we recognise that these two things go hand in hand. First, we have a right to expect that all sectors of the community abide by the same laws and regulations. Secondly, we have a duty to make sure that people are not excluded from the possibility of complying with the law. At the moment we have a situation in which some local authorities do not recognise any responsibility for making any provision for gypsies and travellers available. That causes problems. It means that gypsies and travellers are forced to camp illegally or they are moved on to those areas that do make provision.
In Essex, we have 12 sites for gypsies and travellers. Sometimes, those sites are created in the teeth of local opposition, as we have heard. It is of the utmost importance, when dealing with local opposition, that we are able to explain why official sites are beneficial.
If we do not have the power properly to ensure that those sites are not abused or our provision of sites does not lead to a reduction in the incidence of illegal encampments, we are likely, quite rightly, to lose the confidence and trust of the communities. I would be interested to learn of the Government's latest thinking about strengthening that dimension to encourage local authorities again to create sites across the country.
I hope that my remarks this evening have made clear where we on this side of the House stand on this issue. We fully support measures that promote the social integration of gypsies and travellers. We recognise the very real difficulties and hardships that those communities face.
At the same time, the settled community has rights, too. Local council tax payers are entitled to expect protection from illegal or anti-social behaviour of the kind that took place on the road to Brighton. I have friends in Brighton and I know how many people complained about that. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, spoke about that. The perpetrators of such behaviour must be tackled. Local authorities must be empowered to intervene quickly and effectively, but also to provide sites for gypsies and travellers. When planning regulations are flouted 1580 and damage is caused, effective action by local authorities to nip the problems in the bud will benefit both local communities and gypsy and traveller groups alike.
We support the sentiment expressed in the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I again emphasise the importance of education as the key to breaking down barriers of social exclusion, but we would also wish the very real concerns of local communities to be taken into account in the consideration of these matters. I again thank the noble Lord. Lord Avebury, for his Question this evening.
§ 8.57 p.m.
Lord Evans of Temple Gutting
My Lords, this has been for me, and I hope for everybody else, an informative, vivid and fascinating debate. Perhaps I may begin on a personal note. I was brought up in Suffolk. My father was an oral historian with a particular interest in gypsies. As a child, I remember gypsies visiting our house frequently and I still have a number of gifts given to me by them. For me, therefore, the word "gypsy" has always been spelt with an upper case "G" and always will be.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was very constructive, but cogent, in his criticism of government policy and 1 hope to discuss that in a moment. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned the importance of education. The right reverend Prelate referred to health and the position of gypsies in our society; and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, spoke movingly about prejudice and racism and drew attention to the paradox that while the Government believe in ethnic representation, we look around and ask where that gypsy representation is in our society.
I was particularly interested in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, because, as chief executive of Essex, he is, as it were, at the coal face. As on many issues, he shared his practical experience with us and referred to the problems of social exclusion and health, producing some devastating statistics on mortality rates and education. Crucially, he touched on that extraordinarily important relationship between central and local government in this matter.
I cannot hope to answer every point made in this short debate. I regret that it is such a short debate, because the subject should be given a great deal of air. I shall ensure that noble Lords get a written response to any points that I do not deal with.
I stress at the outset how grateful we are—all noble Lords said this—to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for securing this debate. He has been at the forefront of this issue for many years. We all remember that, as Eric Lubbock MP, he introduced the Caravan Sites Act 1968, as a Private Member's Bill. That was the first piece of legislation that fully recognised the accommodation needs of gypsies and travellers.
As noble Lords have said, gypsies and travellers represent one of our oldest communities, yet—this is another paradox—they have long been one of the most excluded groups in this country. The Government are committed to improving their quality of life and are 1581 keen to see more social inclusion, as noble Lords have stressed. That can happen only with government engagement and when people look past the stereotypes of gypsies and travellers and recognise that they are an integral part of society and deserve a fair deal like everyone else. There obviously must be a government role in the process. The Government of course acknowledge that gypsies and travellers have a right to pursue a nomadic lifestyle and to enjoy the existence that they have chosen, within the boundaries of the law. The fact that I have to say that suggests how much work needs to be done by all of us to make gypsies and travellers part of our society. We also acknowledge their absolute right to access essential services such as healthcare and education—noble Lords stressed the importance of that; I will discuss that at some length because it is a key issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was very critical of government policy. I am delighted to say that the Government are actively trying to make a step change in their policies on gypsies and travellers. Some fairly profound criticisms were made of the Government by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. He referred to the slowness with which we have done things. I stress that I have made an unambiguous statement and I will follow it through.
We have made some progress in effecting that change by commissioning research on the provision and condition of local authority gypsy/traveller sites in England; introducing the gypsy sites refurbishment grant, which is not enough but is a significant start; and consulting on guidance on the management of unauthorised camping.
The Government continue to develop policy in conjunction with key players such as representatives from the gypsy and traveller community, the Institute of Public Policy and Research and the Commission for Racial Equality. In addition, the Government are reviewing planning procedures, and gypsy and traveller provision will be looked at as part of that review.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, mentioned the extraordinarily important Pat Niner research which was commissioned. I am pleased that that research revealed, as we all know, that a widely understood policy is badly needed. The Government are working on that with key players, including the research groups I mentioned and gypsy and traveller representatives to ensure that we have a sustainable policy, for which noble Lords were asking. That is a positive step forward. I do not know the timescale but I shall find out and let noble Lords know about that important matter.
The Government introduced the gypsy sites refurbishment grant in 2001 and over the past three years have provided £17 million worth of funding to assist with the upkeep of those sites. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, says, that is not a great deal of money, but it is a significant start and something to build on.
1582 The current network of 324 local authority authorised sites provides a much needed resource for gypsies and travellers. We are certainly conscious of the need to keep these sites open and available for use; and we are fully aware of many of the problems that have to be dealt with.
Round 3 of the grant has been extended to provide funding for temporary sites and emergency stopping places, as well as to continue to refurbish existing sites. That further injection of funding will, we hope, persuade local authorities to ensure adequate provision in their areas.
Furthermore, on 27th March, my honourable friend, the Member for Harrow East announced at the Local Government Association conference that further funding of £16 million will be made available over the next two years—£8 million per year in 2004–05 and 2005–06 to continue to improve and upgrade existing sites and to establish temporary sites and emergency stopping places.
§ Lord Avebury
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, is he in a position to calculate how many temporary stopping places will be provided out of this money, and whether he will compare that with the 2,000 places which Pat Niner said had to be provided?
§ Lord Evans of Temple Guiting
My Lords, I regret that I do not have that statistic in this document. I shall certainly find out and let the noble Lord know. However, it is important to return to the point I made about the Pat Niner research: that the Government understand that the research is needed and will use this to develop a sustainable policy. With such a significant statistic as the one mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, it will be very difficult to ignore.
The ultimate answer to homelessness is to have an adequate number of authorised sites for gypsies and travellers in which to camp. We have gone some way to improve the situation through the gypsy site refurbishment grant. However, central Government can only go so far. We must therefore have the input and co-operation of local authorities in order to provide these sites for the gypsy and traveller community. That touches on an important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, about the relationship between central and local government in this matter. That is an extremely interesting issue.
The Government continue to issue clear guidelines to local authorities of their need to provide both permanent and temporary site provision and to give gypsies and travellers, who either reside in or pass through their areas, proper sites to live in. Obviously these sites should have the basic amenities. Such provision would help reduce the level of unauthorised camping and encourage good practice and social inclusion by local authorities.
Until an adequate number of authorised sites are made available, gypsies and travellers have little choice but to camp in undesirable/unauthorised locations. So this problem is fully understood.
1583 I have been asked where the Government stand in regard to our new guidance on managing unauthorised camping. I am pleased to announce that the Government are on track to issue this document later in the summer. I would like to take this opportunity to assure noble Lords that the new guide is not just about local authorities and police services evicting gypsies and travellers from unauthorised sites, it is about understanding the causes of unauthorised camping and developing effective strategies and identifying proportionate responses to them. The guide has been informed by those agencies that have experience of unauthorised camping at the local level and includes the views of gypsy and traveller representative groups.
While the new guide is geared towards addressing the small number of disruptive and unsettling encampments that impede upon the lives of other gypsies, travellers and local residents, it will also set out good practice standards to enable local authorities—obviously that good practice is not needed in Essex—and police services to be more aware of the needs of gypsies and travellers.
The guide will strive to address the wider issues of unauthorised camping and adequate site provision, and the need for local authorities to put in place integrated, balanced and consistent policies and strategies. Local authorities, in implementing such policies, will have a better understanding of the gypsy and traveller way of life and the needs of the local community.
Before moving on to education, I would like to say a few words about homelessness legislation. As I have just two minutes left, they will be a very few words. The Government are committed to tackling homelessness. That is why we are taking forward a challenging new approach which focuses as much on the problems homeless people face as the places they live. This approach was set out in our March 2002 publication More Than A Roof.
One aspect of this is a strengthening of the homelessness safety net, including implementation of the homelessness provisions of the Homelessness Act. One of the most important provisions of the 2002 Act is the new requirement for local housing authorities to adopt a homelessness strategy based on a review of homelessness in their district. This must be a strategy for preventing homelessness and ensuring that accommodation and support are available for people who are homeless or likely to become homeless.
1584 So among other things they will need to take into account the needs of gypsies and travellers who are likely to become homeless in the district and include an analysis of whether existing site provision is adequate.
In the final minute I wish to move on to education. I am really sorry that I do not have more time. I agree with everyone who said that this is an absolutely crucial area. As we know, the Department for Education and Skills has, since 1997, continued to fund the Traveller Education Service. From April the grant was merged with other small grants to form the Vulnerable Children Grant; a funding increase from £31 million to £84 million, for which all LEAs are eligible. It is to support a coherent strategy for a range of locally identified vulnerable children including those from gypsy and traveller families.
There is a matter of good practice which has already been mentioned that all schools should be following. Many schools are doing that, particularly those with minority ethnic pupils, including gypsy travellers. All schools under the specific duties outlined in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 are required to have in place a written race equality policy. Schools are also required to have arrangements to assess the impact of their policies on pupils, parents and the staff with different racial backgrounds, including the gypsies, Roma and travellers of Irish heritage.
Resources are being allocated in one important area: better data on school registration, attendance and achievements of gypsy and traveller children. We are recognising the importance of collecting this data as the key to addressing school attendance issues. The DfES has invested £11.25 million for electronic registration systems in secondary schools with higher rates of unauthorised absence.
I conclude on education by stressing again that we feel, as do other noble Lords, that investment in education for the gypsy and traveller community is an absolutely key issue of the highest importance. I am sure that this Government are committed to interesting and exciting initiatives in this area.
I thank everyone who has taken part in this debate. I have found it extraordinarily interesting. I hope that some of what I have said will enable your Lordships to leave the Chamber encouraged that this Government are determined to help the disadvantaged people we have been talking about this evening.
House adjourned at a quarter past nine o'clock.