I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make it a criminal offence to demand money to vacate an unauthorised encampment;
and for connected purposes.
The relationship between the Traveller community and the resident community is one of the most tense of any in our society. As Members of Parliament, we are often contacted to support those caught up in the unhappy collision between the two groups, and successive Governments have failed to bridge the gap. By the sheer weight of Members who have volunteered to be sponsors of this Bill, I know that I am not the only Member who has faced such issues in my constituency. Usually, getting other Members to be co-sponsors of a Bill is an arduous and time-consuming task that requires the calling in of favours—or at least a good deal of doleful pleading. In this case, I had secured the requisite 11 volunteers within a few minutes of emailing round my request for sponsors. Indeed, as many as 41 right hon. and hon. Members have expressed an interest in being supporters of the Bill.
The Bill would build on current legislation to make it a specific offence for people to demand money to vacate an authorised encampment, which has happened in my constituency on several occasions that I have been made aware of. It is worth saying that I entirely understand that the Traveller community faces a good deal of prejudice and discrimination. I also think it is lamentable that successive Governments, and perhaps this one in particular, have spoken the language of supporting Traveller communities while failing to take the requisite steps to ensure that there are an adequate number of legitimate sites. We in this place will make the job of our overstretched police forces a much easier one if we ensure that there are sufficient legitimate sites.
I have to confess that some may see my own contribution as a little two-faced: I am happy to call for more sites, but when the recent local plan for the borough of Chesterfield went out for consultation, I considered all six of the potential venues that the council identified for a Traveller site to be inappropriate. I do recognise that if we wait for a resident community that positively demands a site, we will be waiting a long time, but the planning guidance needs looking at, because all the sites identified in Chesterfield were on council estates in built-up communities, and were clearly inappropriate and would lead to greater division and unrest in the community. Surely other sites that are more remote from other housing estates would make more sense than these collisions being inflicted on a specific estate and community.
Having said all that, it is perfectly possible to have every sympathy about the lack of authorised encampments and still be horrified by some of the practices that we have all experienced in respect of unauthorised encampments. In particular, it is clear that, far from simply requiring a place to stay for a few days, many Travellers have seen the disquiet that their visit causes as an opportunity to use fear to earn and, indeed, to demand money. A number of different pieces of legislation already address the issue of trespass and encampments, but my Bill will deal with the specific offence of demanding money to leave a site that people are not entitled to be on in the first place.
Three weeks ago, I was contacted by an information technology firm in my constituency called Coolspirit, which is based on the Bridge business park in Dunston in Chesterfield. Coolspirit employs more than 20 people and had been notified that Travellers had moved on to its car park at 7 pm that night. The owner, Damon Robertson, attended and attempted to encourage the Travellers to leave. He explained that their use of his car park would prevent his staff from attending work the following day. Immediately, the Travellers suggested that he pay them £2,500 to leave the site, alongside making threats to him, his wife and his property. They also informed him that it would cost him a lot more than that to employ bailiffs to remove them from the site. To his amazement, the police officer who eventually attended seemed to think that this was an offer worthy of consideration.
Coolspirit was not alone in feeling utterly abandoned by the forces of law and order and as though the law was kinder to those who were breaking the law than those who were attempting to uphold their legal rights. Eventually, after my intervention, the police took a more helpful approach. It is only fair to acknowledge that the Derbyshire police and crime commissioner, Hardyal Dhindsa, has taken a very proactive approach in attempting to get these offences policed more robustly. Too often, though, the experience of businesses and landowners is that the victims are on the wrong side of the law.
The incident I have outlined was not the first time that the strategy of using an illegal encampment to extort money had been used in Chesterfield. Last August, Travellers arrived on the cricket square at the famous Queen’s Park cricket ground in Chesterfield on a Friday night, just an hour before a junior cup cricket final was due to start. Dozens of parents and supporters, plus the 22 children who were due to play in the cup final, arrived only to discover that play was impossible because of a caravan sited on a good length just outside the off stump, with further vehicles pitched up at gully, square leg and extra cover.
The chairman of the cricket club approached the Travellers and asked them if they would mind moving 60 yards or so on to the bank—there is large amount of park land just beyond the cricket pitch at Queen’s Park—so that the children’s cup final could take place. He explained that the children had worked hard to get to the cup final and that their parents were all excited about watching them play. Again, he was told that the Travellers would be willing to move 60 yards on to the bank, but that the inconvenience would not come cheap: they would require £10,000 and the return ferry fares to Ireland to move.
In doing research for the introduction of my Bill, I learned of the case of Thwaites brewery in Blackburn. An even bigger group of 20 caravans arrived on site, ultimately costing about £350,000 in damage and stolen goods. Again, the Travellers made financial demands, in this case asking for £20,000 to leave the site. The police’s first question to the brewery owners was, “Are you insured?” Let us stop for a moment and ask, as legislators, what kind of law and service we are presiding over when the first question that the police ask a victim of crime is not, “Is an offence being committed?” but, “Are you insured?”
In that case, the police eventually—and uniquely, as far as I have been able to establish—prosecuted the Travellers for the offence of blackmail alongside the criminal damage prosecution, although the chief executive of Thwaites brewery, Richard Bailey, told me that he believes the blackmail prosecution was sought only as an addendum to the criminal damage case. When I asked the Government how many blackmail prosecutions there have been for the offence of demanding money to leave a site that someone is on unlawfully, they confirmed that they did not hold that data. My diligent staff have worked night and day to try to find other examples of convictions for that offence under existing legislation, and they have been unable to find any.
It is not enough for us in this place to allow public authorities, whether the police or councils, to expect private landowners to pay thousands of pounds to regain unfettered access to their own land because of the failure of public authorities to provide adequate authorised facilities and our failure as legislators to provide usable legislation and policing resources to support landowners to rid their sites of illegal occupants. The Bill will not address all the issues, but it will at least create one new tool for the police and landowners and will discourage those people who might be tempted to try to raise money through demanding cash to leave premises that they should not be on in the first place.
This issue is causing a huge deal of distress, fear and mistrust, and it stands with us as MPs to tackle these issues, at a time when Parliament is passing precious little other legislation. The Bill enjoys cross-party support, and I know it will be popular not just among Members from all parties but, more importantly, among business owners and families across the land. I encourage the Government to find time in their schedule to support the later stages of the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Toby Perkins accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 393).