I want to concentrate on the provisions of part 4 of the Bill, which deal with the long-standing problem of unauthorised encampments. Part 4 effectively upgrades acts of deliberate trespass from a civil to a criminal offence. The campaign of those of us who have argued for that change for a number of years now was based on a similar change in the law in the Republic of Ireland several years ago; hence it has often been referred to succinctly as the Irish option. The move has become necessary because of persistent illegal incursions by some individuals, including some members of the travelling community, that have become an increasing problem in many parts of the country, including my home county of Essex, in recent years.
For the record, many Travellers are perfectly law-abiding and have good relations with the settled community. Unfortunately, however, some others are not, and there have been repeated examples of antisocial behaviour and even criminal damage resulting from illegal encampments in recent years in places as varied as village greens, sports grounds and industrial estates. As a civil offence, it has often necessitated local authorities having to go to court, at public expense, to have such incursions moved on, as well as sometimes being involved in the further expense of clean-up operations once illegal sites have been vacated.
Under this Bill, which I am proud to say fulfils a 2019 Conservative manifesto commitment, police officers will be given powers to challenge illegal encampments of one vehicle or more. If people wilfully refuse to move on, they can be arrested with a maximum sentence of three months’ imprisonment or a fine of up to £2,500, or both. Crucially, offenders can also have their property, including their vehicle or vehicles, impounded by the police.
I can assure the House that this important change in the law has proved very popular with my constituents, and I have received many messages of support since it was confirmed last week. In addition, it has also proved popular with the Essex farming community. The county adviser of the National Farmers Union, Dr Jake Richards, sent me this brief message:
“Dear Mr Francois, I am writing to thank you on behalf of the NFU and the farmers in your constituency for your support and for the Commitment from fellow Essex MP, Rt Hon Priti Patel, on Monday when she announced that changes to the law were being brought forward as part of a new major criminal justice bill to be introduced to Parliament imminently. The changes proposed will be most welcome by our Members.”
Our industrious Essex police, fire and crime commissioner, Mr Roger Hirst, also warmly welcomed adding these powers to the statute book.
In summary, I hope and believe that these tough new powers will act as a genuine deterrent to illegal encampments in future and should thus lead to improved relations between the travelling and settled communities. I congratulate Ministers, and the Home Secretary in particular, on having the courage to introduce them and, in so doing, fulfilling part of the manifesto on which we were elected in the first place.