Clause 115 of the Bill will lead to the abolition of Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments.
Thanks to hard work by Gill Brown, Secretary to the All Party Parliamentary Group, Abbie Kirkby of Friends, Families and Travellers and others, many peers spoke against this clause and sought to amend it though, ultimately, they did not manage to achieve this. There was a very good debate on the Bill in the House of Lords on 17th March 2017 and we quote some extracts here:-
Lord Beecham (Labour):-
…Marc Willers QC declared that he has “no doubt that site provision will reduce and that the shortage of accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers will increase if the requirement to assess their needs is subsumed into a more general housing needs assessment and the guidance on assessing their needs is swept away”, that is to say, that the problems will increase when an assessment of their needs is no longer required.
Concern over the provision is widespread. The Catholic Association for Racial Justice is deeply concerned about the latest planning policy for sites which it says is making it much harder for Gypsies and Travellers to obtain planning permission to live even on their own land. It concludes:- “the impact of these….changes could be very undermining for Gypsy and Traveller communities, increasing their already serious disadvantage and marginalisation”.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans:-
With this in mind I will highlight two main concerns, which I hope the Government will address. The first is the total lack of mention of Gypsy and Traveller communities in clause 115 and only the smallest mention of them in the draft guidance. It is important to bear in mind that some local authorities, often under pressure from the wider community to refrain from making land available for Gypsy and Traveller sites, are liable to seize on any excuse not to undertake a full and detailed assessment of Gypsy and Traveller needs. The Government’s own impact assessment seems to recognise that the failure to put reference to Gypsies and Travellers in primary legislation – regulating any mention to secondary guidance only – may give local authorities the impression that the importance of assessing those needs has been downgraded in the new legislation. Making it clear in primary legislation that any assessment requirements include a requirement to assess the needs of Gypsies, Travellers and Showmen residing in or having recourse to a local authority is therefore essential to maintain the pressure on local authorities to carry out such an assessment.
The simplest way of ensuring that the Gypsy and Traveller communities are directly mentioned in primary legislation is to ensure that sections 225 and 226 of the Housing Act 2004 remain in legislation, as my amendment proposes.
Given that any guidance issued is guidance only, can the Minister explain to the House how the Government intend to ensure that local authorities assess vulnerable Gypsy and Traveller families who might be abiding in bricks-and-mortar housing, perhaps only temporarily, when under Clause 115 there will be no statutory duty on them to do so?
Baroness Bakewell (Liberal Democrat):-
I am at a loss to understand why, apart from again bowing to pressure from certain quarters, the Government are now seeking to delete this requirement for local authorities to make provision in their housing needs assessments and local plans for sites for Travelling communities.
The requirement is there now and is not arduous. Making it virtually impossible for Travelling communities to find permanent or temporary sites will only lead to an increase in what are known as illegal encampments.
Baroness Whitaker (Labour)
Clause 115 did not emerge from consultation, nor was it presaged in the Conservative Manifesto. It is as if the Government want, stealthily, to do away with a culture and traditional way of life that is different from that of the settled majority. Instead of bringing in measures that could improve social cohesion and oppose the prejudice that has made this very small minority so often marginalised and deprived – to the severe detriment of its health and education opportunities, let alone ordinary peace of mind – they seek to deepen that deprivation.
Lord Stunell (Liberal Democrat):-
It is the last group in Britain that it is legitimate to slag off in the golf club bar, on the street corner, or, indeed, at the Parish Council in a way that nobody would if those involved were Pakistani, Afro-Caribbean or Chinese people, because, apart from anything else, they would know that it was illegal to do so. They would know that it is something that we do not do in Britain but you can still say these things about Gypsies. Unfortunately and sadly, that is the case, and I do not think we should give anybody an excuse to default on their duty.
In answering for the Government, Viscount Younger stated:-
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans raised concern about local authorities ignoring needs. If a public authority does not comply with the general duty under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 – the public sector equality duty – its actions or failure to act can be challenged by judicial review. He also asked what consultation was undertaken on the draft guidance. Officials in the department and my noble friend the Minister, who is in her place on the Front Bench, have engaged with the Gypsy and Traveller communities through liaison groups, which meet every few months. The guidance is published in draft, so we are continuing to engage with representatives from the Travelling communities.
We know that the main Gypsy and Traveller organisations will be very interested to read this since we understand that no consultation on the draft guidance has actually taken place at liaison group meetings.
While not pressing forward his amendment, Lord Beecham concluded:-
Section 8 of the 1985 Housing Act required every housing authority to “consider housing conditions in their district and the needs of the district with respect to the provision of further housing accommodation”. That clause was effectively amended by the 2004 Act. It was amended because insufficient provision was being made for this group and because very often it was not made because of pressure from people who feared or, at any rate, opposed provision for the categories of would-be residents that we were talking about. If the 2004 Act was in response to the failure by then of authorities to make provision – and that clearly is the case – what sort of message does it send to remove that duty under the 2004 Act and then say, “Well, its alright because they have a duty to consider everything”? They had that duty under the 1985 Act and it was clearly not being fulfilled”.