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Trespass with a Vehicle (Offences)

– in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 28th February 2006.

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Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:32 pm, 28th February 2006

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to create an offence of criminal trespass with a vehicle;
and for connected purposes.

The House is familiar with the many issues surrounding the Traveller population and the local uproar that arises, particularly in rural areas, when a group of Travellers arrive with one or more caravans and set up home on land that they do not own. Such land may be owned by public authorities, most often the county council, or privately owned. Fences and gates can often be broken to gain access. While the Travellers remain, they frequently desecrate the surrounding area, cutting down fences and trees for fires and then leaving piles of rubbish and detritus, sometimes including human excrement. The costs of clearing it all up fall on the local taxpayer or the individual owner of the land.

I am sure that I am not the only one to have had numerous cases of that in my constituency. Recently, in the small village of Swaffham Prior, Travellers camped on the village playing field, preventing the football club from using it and costing the parish council more than £4,000 the first time to clear up and £1,600 the second time in legal fees to get them evicted and to clear up. That is unacceptable. A direct consequence is that property owners, including local authorities, have to take action to prevent access. Large unsightly mounds of earth or rubble are put in gateways and farmers use redundant machinery to block access to their fields. Why should law-abiding people have to do those things?

The House will be well aware that Cambridgeshire is particularly affected by unauthorised encampments. Some say that that is for historical reasons deriving from casual labour for fruit and vegetable harvesting, but a minimal number of Travellers, if any, are engaged in such activities today. A far more likely reason for the large number of Travellers in the county is that successive Government policies have created a honeypot effect. While the Government use half-yearly counts of unauthorised sites to indicate demand, it is inevitable that it can never be satisfied. The Travellers know that and therefore go to the areas where the problem is greatest, in full knowledge that the Government will then put pressure on the local council to provide more sites. Nowhere is that more obvious than in south Cambridgeshire. In the past two years, the number of unauthorised sites has risen by 63 per cent., yet the number of authorised sites has also risen. Last July, at the time of the last count, in the whole of the eastern region there were 325 unauthorised sites on land not owned by Gypsies.

Before I go any further I want to make two specific points. First, most Members of the House know that the village of Cottenham is in my constituency. Unfortunately, it has received a considerable amount of unwelcome publicity over the past few years as the result of a substantial incursion by Irish Travellers. However, this Bill is not directed at that issue because those Travellers own the land, and the problems there are issues of planning and enforcement. The second point follows from that—namely, that not all Travellers cause the problems that I have described. Inevitably, there are generalisations, but illegal encampments, however tidy, must be stopped. In Cottenham, whatever the planning issues, the pitches are generally clean and tidy, although it has to be said that the surrounding area appears to suffer, and certainly a privately owned orchard has been destroyed.

There have been a number of attempts by successive Governments to resolve those problems, some designed to help, some to hinder, but few, I am afraid, have made any difference. Section 34 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 makes it an offence to drive a vehicle more than 15 yd from the highway on to private land without consent, yet there have been few, if any, prosecutions. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 gives police officers the power to move on Travellers if the landowner has asked them to leave, and the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 slightly strengthened that legislation as a result of amendments that I tabled. Yet in the last three years there have been no prosecutions.

It is clear to me that more must be done. In doing so, we should look at Ireland, which has addressed the problem robustly. In 2002, the Irish Government made trespass a criminal offence. The result for them was as expected: the problem reduced significantly. The result for us was unexpected—it led to a significant increase in the number of Irish Travellers in Britain. I quote from a letter that I received only this morning from an individual who had seen the publicity surrounding my presentation of the Bill:

"My wife, who is of Irish descent, and myself often holiday in the Republic where the Irish people cannot believe their good fortune to be getting rid of their problem. There are thousands of these gypsies wanting to come to the UK".

Even allowing for a little exaggeration, that underlines the problem as seen from the Irish perspective.

My Bill does not go as far as the Irish legislation, which made all trespass a criminal offence. I seek only to make trespass with a vehicle a criminal offence if someone does not move on when told to do so by a constable. There can be no ifs or buts about this, and no spurious arguments about welfare—the people in question should have thought about that before they arrived at the site.

My Bill also addresses other activities, not involving Travellers, where motor vehicles are used in trespass. My hon. Friend Mr. Turner has drawn my attention to serious problems on the Tennyson trail, where off-roaders have killed sheep and caused serious damage to the landscape. Similarly, vehicles are used to gain access to property for an illegal rave, yet the police frequently decline to act to prevent them.

Quite rightly, many people will ask where the Travellers should go. There is a shortage of sites in some areas, and in my view their provision should be included in local plans, but that is not the point at issue here. I came to the House believing that we are all equal under the law. It is not acceptable for some sectors of society to be able to get away with activities which the rest of us could not; nor is it acceptable for owners of private land to have to spend several thousands of pounds obtaining eviction orders and clearing up the abominable mess that is left behind.

I conclude with a reference to a Bill that is currently before the House. Through the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill, the Government are, rightly, trying to prevent further damage to green lanes and byways by off-road vehicles. Why bother, if Travellers can continue to use them with impunity?

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. James Paice, Mr. Peter Ainsworth, David T. C. Davies, Mr. Dominic Grieve, Gregory Barker, Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Mr. Mark Prisk, Andrew Selous, Mr. Andrew Turner and Bill Wiggin.