There are, in fact, roughly 20 Members of Parliament in the Chamber tonight, which—as the Minister and the Whips will appreciate—is a pretty good turnout for a one-line Whip Monday. I think that we are all here for one common reason, which is that we have had enough. This has been going on for years. I am not trying to emulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West, as this is my own particular contribution, but we have had enough.
Every spring and summer the cat and mouse game begins again. The illegal incursions begin, the council’s legal staff are put on alert and the police begin to patrol. But, of course, the Travellers know the law backwards; they know every loophole. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire said, we must acknowledge that some behave perfectly legally, but many unfortunately do not. The incursions begin on farmers’ fields, school playing fields, sports centres and increasingly—as Ruth George intimated—industrial units and business parks, all of which is illegal and none of which has permission. As well as the antisocial behaviour that often occurs, by the time the Travellers have moved on there are often considerable clean-up costs. For example, one incursion that lasted nearly a week in the Basildon Borough Council area a couple of years ago led to clean-up costs of approximately £10,000, which had to be borne by the council taxpayers of that authority, whose fault it absolutely was not.
Seeking redress through the courts can often take quite a long while. This often leads by constituents to believe that Travellers somehow see themselves above the law. It is a great part of my constituents’ frustration that there seems to be one law for the settled community and another law for the travelling community. In essence, this evening we are arguing for equality before the law—a fundamental principle of British justice going all the way back to Magna Carta. The police have a section 61 power to compel Travellers to move on from an illegal encampment, but there is no geographical definition of how far that movement has to be. They can literally move a few hundred yards down the road, re-encamp there, then the whole rigmarole starts all over again. That is how weak the power currently available to the police is. We need something far firmer to act as a real deterrent.
In fairness, the Government have realised the increasing frustration about this issue—not least given the three Adjournment debates on the subject secured by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire in the past few years—and launched a consultation some months ago on whether to change the law in relation to Travellers, and that consultation closed a few weeks ago. The Minister will be well aware that 59 of my Conservative colleagues, including several former Cabinet Ministers, wrote to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to ask him to adopt the Irish option. I make this plea tonight as a former Department for Communities and Local Government Minister myself. I saw discussions about this issue when I served in the Department, but I did not see what I would call any genuine determination to grip it and come up with a solution. It was left to us to propose one, which was, in fairness, one of the options included in the Government’s consultation.
What we are asking for, essentially, is what is known as the Irish option, based on the fact that in 2002 Ireland changed the law to make acts of deliberate trespass a criminal offence. Part of the knock-on effect of that is that we have had more Travellers coming from Ireland to England during the travelling season because the law is tougher in Ireland than it is here at present, so we are regarded as something of a soft touch. We should make deliberate acts of trespass a criminal offence. We are not talking about a couple of schoolboys cutting across the corner of a farmer’s field on the way home from school. Clearly, the police would have discretion, as with any other law, in how they applied this. We are talking about a deliberate act of trespass on land that Travellers do not own and do not have permission to be on. That would be regarded as a criminal offence and the police would therefore have a power to compel them to move on immediately. If they did not do so, they could be arrested, and their vehicles could be impounded—which, believe you me, would be a very powerful deterrent to the travelling community. That would go a long way towards addressing this problem, because it would give the police and local authorities, with whom they work closely, a real deterrent power to stop this menace occurring in our constituencies year after year.
Some people would say, “Well, this is too harsh”—that it in some way abrogates the Travellers’ human rights. I can understand that argument but I do not agree with it. What about the human rights of the settled community and the human rights of the council tax payers in our constituencies? Moreover, Ireland, when I last looked, was subject to the European convention on human rights, and it passed this law in 2002. If Ireland was able to do it under the ECHR, I see absolutely no reason why we cannot similarly do it under the ECHR in the United Kingdom.
This has been going on for years and years. Now, finally, the Government have acknowledged that there is a problem. Churchill once famously said that the first stage in dealing with any problem, no matter what its magnitude, is to admit that the problem exists. To be fair to the Government, they have admitted that there is a problem. The Minister knows how this place works and is a popular Member of this House—that is as much buttering up as I am going to do—but I would humbly advise him, having marched us all up to the top of the hill, not to march us all down again. There will be real anger in this place if, as a result of this consultation, the Government make some very minor tweak in the law as window-dressing but do not meaningfully address this problem such that we will see a real decrease in these incidents in the next two years. The Minister has a chance to do something that would be incredibly popular in the country and will also, in effect, fulfil a 2010 manifesto commitment. I really believe that now is the time to make everybody equal before the law, to stop this menace, and to defend the communities whom we are elected to represent.