Sadiq Khan is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Communities and Local Government. During oral questions yesterday, he made an unfair attack on James Paice, Shadow Minister for Agriculture.
"Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the rules and laws of this country should apply to everybody equally? If so, does he understand how my constituents in the villages of Wilburton and Haddenham feel at the prospect of another 14 Traveller pitches being granted permission? That permission is being granted not because those sites are wanted there and not because the district council wants them, but because the council is being forced to grant permission on land for which it would not otherwise do so, because of pressure from the Government and from the regional planning policy. One of the two sites has already been rejected for use in building conventional housing. The other is a greenfield site. If anybody else applied to carry out normal development, they would not have a prayer.
Mr. Khan: Gypsies and Travellers are bound by the same planning laws and human rights legislation as everyone else, which means that they should apply for planning permission before moving on to or developing land that they own. In the same way as everyone else, they are subject to enforcement action if the proper planning processes are not complied with. Local authorities, rather than the Government, should decide what happens in local communities."
Mr Paice’s question did not betray a prejudice against Gypsy and Traveller sites. He did not indicate a blanket opposition to them, but was talking about the prospect of an additional fourteen pitches. He did assert that planning permission was being granted in unique circumstances, but he backed up his assertion with evidence – i.e. that one of the two sites has been rejected for conventional use.
The minister was entitled to rebut that claim, and to question Mr Paice’s assertion that this is an unpopular decision. But accusing him of being prejudiced against Gypsy and Traveller sites was inelegant and unfair. The Speaker was right to rule the minister’s remarks in order – but they were bang out of order in a non-Parliamentary sense.
The Opposition and individual MPs (Mr Paice was raising this matter on behalf of his constituents) must be able to raise difficult matters without the Government resorting to insupportable accusations of bigotry. Not being prejudiced against Gypsies or Travellers does not necessitate supporting every planning application for a site. It is also perfectly reasonable to be concerned about the number of sites in a given area.
Nor is it implausible that certain interest groups might be given an unfair advantage on certain occasions. Mr Khan was entitled to dispute Mr Paice’s assertion that this has happened in Cambridgeshire. The minister was quite wrong to respond as he did.
He owes Mr Paice an apology. Seeing as the offence took place in the chamber, that is where he should make amends.