I stand to speak out against clauses 61 to 63. In doing so, I am reflecting the views of the Gypsy and Traveller community, the police, and organisations as diverse as the Ramblers Association and Liberty.
I want to start by thanking Abbie Kirkby from Friends, Families & Travellers for all its help on part 4 of the Bill. Part 4—clauses 61 to 63—would amend the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to create a new offence of
“residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle”.
It would also amend the police powers associated with unauthorised encampments in the Act to lower the threshold at which they can be used, allow the police to remove unauthorised encampments on or partly on highways, and prohibit unauthorised encampments that are moved from a site from returning within 12 months.
Like the clauses we have just debated on public order, this part of the Bill is controversial and has generated a number of organised campaigns in opposition to it, including an e-petition that garnered 134,932 signatures. The petition called the Government’s proposed criminal offence “extreme, illiberal and unnecessary”.
I do not know who signed the petition, but I am sure it is available. The right hon. Gentleman will have to explore the petition himself to see who signed it.
A broad coalition, from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to Liberty, from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to the Ramblers Association and from the police to Shelter, is united in the view that the proposals put forward by the Government would be wrong and unhelpful, and go against our basic rights.
We have a big problem in Ashfield with the travelling community. They come two or three times a year. I did my own poll of about 2,000 constituents, and 95% agreed with me that the Travellers were creating a massive problem—crime was going up, pets were going missing, antisocial behaviour was going through the roof and properties were getting broken into. My constituents do not want them in our area anymore. That was a survey of 2,000 people, and that was the response from 95% of them. That evidence from my area is a bit more compelling than the petition the hon. Gentleman mentioned, which has probably been signed by 100,000 Travellers.
One of the problems is that there is less local authority provision for Travellers to go to. That loss of provision, which is partly due to cuts to local government, has caused more problems, meaning that more people are on the road at any given time. However, this issue does not affect just the Traveller community, as the hon. Gentleman will see when I go on to make further points. It also impacts people such as ramblers, birdwatchers and others who want to stay out and sleep in their vehicles while enjoying countryside activities.
My hon. Friend has made the point that there is a failure in our society to provide sufficient facilities for people from the travelling community, be they traditional Gypsies or people who choose to go on the road. Does he agree that the Government, rather than bringing in legislation such as this, should turn their attention to providing local authorities with the resources they need to provide facilities for travelling communities? Does he also agree that that should not be left just to some communities; communities across the country should take a share in providing such facilities so that Travellers can live with them cheek by jowl in a peaceful way?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That was highlighted by the representative from the LGA in her evidence to the Committee.
As one of the respondents to the Petition Committee’s survey on the criminalisation of trespass put it:
“The criminalisation of trespass will simply exacerbate an already fraught relationship.”
Next to my constituency is a Traveller site that has spaces that could be used by people who choose to live a nomadic lifestyle, yet we still have people turning up and using public car parks. People going to do their shopping at the Keel Row shopping centre found that really intimidating and the police had to ask the Travellers to move on. When they did move on, they left a lot of rubbish and the place was really untidy. There was space at the Traveller site, but the Travellers chose not to use it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that was wrong?
I agree that there is no excuse for antisocial behaviour or criminal activity, such as fly-tipping, which is wrong and needs to stop. Equally, where sites are provided, they should be made use of.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must listen to local people in this respect? When sites were proposed in Stockton-on-Tees in 2014, there were 565 individual representations against them, four petitions signed by 850 people and a letter of objection supported by 55 neighbours, so even in Stockton-on-Tees, the constituency of the hon. Member for Stockton North, there is great opposition to having these Traveller sites in their communities.
Therein lies the problem: many people do not want to have Travellers anywhere near them, and that is partly why there are so few sites. If more sites were made available, that would potentially solve the problem.
We have already established that in places where Traveller communities set up, such as Ashfield, crime goes up; we know that there is a direct correlation between Travellers being in the area and crime going up. Does the hon. Gentleman think that crime will come down if we have a permanent site in Ashfield?
As I have said, there is no excuse for criminality, and the Gypsy and Traveller community is already overrepresented in the prison population, but I do not think that the two issues are necessarily related to what the clause is trying to achieve. The hon. Gentleman is trying to say that the Gypsy and Traveller community is responsible for crime in Ashfield. I do not know the facts and figures in relation to that, but what the clause does is criminalise communities for being in vehicles on public land. While each Member has a concern about their individual constituents, we need to get back to what the Bill is focusing on, which is criminalising anyone in a vehicle, even on their own. I think that is what we need to focus on.
In Stockton, we have had facilities for travelling communities for many years. I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that this is about having proper facilities. Perhaps I can point him to the example of the Appleby horse fair, which attracts thousands of people every year. We see them travelling up, and they stay on the byways and all sorts of places along the way, but when they get to the site they are properly catered for. There is proper rubbish removal, proper facilities for animals, toilets and all manner of facilities, and they are put in place to provide for that particular need. Perhaps if other local authorities across the country took that approach, we would not have the problems that Government Members have described.
Again, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He is right: if more facilities were provided, that would help to solve the problem.
Although these clauses do not apply in Scotland, does the hon. Member agree that a significant number of Gypsy Travellers cross the border daily for work, to maintain family ties and for cultural reasons, and that these measures will cause further discrimination and harassment of this ethnic group, which is protected under the Equality Act 2010 as a recognised ethnic group?
I entirely agree with the hon. Member’s comments. He is right: this measure is targeting a particular group for criminalisation, and that has to be totally wrong. As one respondent to the Petitions Committee’s survey on criminalisation of trespass put it:
“The criminalisation of trespass will simply exacerbate an already fraught relationship. Travellers will still camp but there’ll be more prosecutions, more distrust, more public money spent on legalities”.
Other people with nomadic lifestyles have told me that they feel that they will no longer be able to live on the road in the way that has been seen in this country since the 16th century, and that the Bill risks criminalising their way of life. At a recent meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, we heard from the community about what might happen to them if these clauses become law. It was absolutely heartbreaking to hear from those people that they fear that their whole way of life will be taken from them if the clauses become law.
Can the Minister tell the House this? Under the provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, what will happen to a Traveller family in a single vehicle who are residing on a highway and have nowhere else to go? Failure to comply with a police direction to leave land occupied as part of an unauthorised encampment is already a criminal offence, but the proposals create a new offence of residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle. The broad way in which it is drafted seems to capture the intention to do that as well as actually doing it, with penalties of imprisonment of up to three months or a fine of up to £2,500, or both. The loose drafting of this legislation invites problems with its interpretation, and it is simply not fair to put that on to the police.
The Opposition’s major concern about this aspect of the Bill is that it is clearly targeted at Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and the criminalisation would potentially breach the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. When the powers in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 were first debated in Parliament, it was stated that the powers were intended to deal with “mass trespass”. However, under the Bill even a single Gypsy or Traveller travelling in a single vehicle will be caught by this offence.
These measures to increase police powers in relation to unauthorised encampments are not even backed by the police. When Friends, Families & Travellers researched the consultation responses that the Government had received, it found that 84% of the police responses did not support the criminalisation of unauthorised encampments. Senior police are telling us that the changes in the Bill that relate to unauthorised encampments would only make matters worse: they would add considerable extra cost for the already overstretched police and risk breaching the Human Rights Act.
The views of the National Police Chiefs’ Council were clearly put in its submission to the 2018 Government consultation. It wrote:
“Trespass is a civil offence and our view is that it should remain so. The possibility of creating a new criminal offence of ‘intentional trespass’…has been raised at various times over the years but the NPCC position has been—and remains—that no new criminal trespass offence is required.
The co-ordinated use of the powers already available under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 allows for a proportionate response to encampments based on the behaviour of the trespassers.”
At an evidence session of this Bill Committee, Martin Hewitt said on behalf of the NPCC that the group
“strongly believes that the fundamental problem is insufficient provision of sites for Gypsy Travellers to occupy, and that that causes the relatively small percentage of unlawful encampments, which obviously create real challenges for the people who are responsible for that land and for those living around… The view of our group is that the existing legislation is sufficient to allow that to be dealt with, and we have some concerns about the additional power and the new criminal provision and how that will draw policing further into that situation.”—[Official Report, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Public Bill Committee,
I have been listening to evidence about whether the existing powers are sufficient, which I challenge. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that if they were sufficient, we would not also have heard evidence about the tens of thousands of pounds that the case in Dartmoor cost. That was a huge cost to the council, thus making the taxpayer pay twice in having to deal with the issues beside them and through the public purse. We also heard countless other examples of what has been happening in communities. Does the shadow Minister think that our current legislation is truly sufficient? I think we need to look again, which is what the Bill is doing.
Civil remedies would still be available for people who engage in antisocial behaviour, fly-tipping and so on. All we would be doing is criminalising a particular group of people. In my view, the civil remedies would still be there and the cost to the council would still be there if proper facilities were not provided. To me, just criminalising a particular group of people is wrong.
To continue, the NPCC witness said:
“Really, our point fundamentally as the NPCC group is that the issue here is the lack of provision that theoretically should be made, which means that we have this percentage of Travellers who are on unlawful spaces and you end up in the situations that we end up with. Our view is that the current legislation is sufficient to deal with that issue.”––[Official Report, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Public Bill Committee,
We have to ask: why are the Government determined to lock up Gypsies and Travellers, even against the advice of their own police? As Martin Hewitt clearly stated, existing legislation on police powers and unauthorised encampments is enough to tackle the problem. The police already have extensive powers to move on unauthorised encampments in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and as of January 2020, just 3% of Gypsy and Traveller caravans—694—in England were in unauthorised encampments. Of those, 419 were on sites not tolerated and 275 were on tolerated sites. The police and campaigners tell us the evidence is not there that the new powers are necessary and that many more authorised encampment sites should be provided instead.
I sometimes wonder whether the power to discourage Travellers from moving in is in the hands of communities. Travellers move around the country for work—to pick up scrap, to do all manner of gardening work, such as taking down trees for people, and so on. I have had many an argument with people living in communities who say, “We don’t want Travellers here,” but they put out their fridge or their scrap metal for them, they let them cut down their trees. They provide them with work and an incentive to be in the area. So perhaps people have it in their own power. Travellers will not come if there is no incentive for them.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, which is worthy of further discussion.
I will run through a series of points the Minister for Crime and Policing made when responding to a Westminster Hall debate on this question. On concerns about the right to roam being threatened, he said the measures will not affect anyone who wants to enjoy the countryside for leisure purposes, but many organisations, such as the Ramblers Association and CPRE the Countryside Charity, are concerned that although the Government might not intend to capture others enjoying the countryside, they could still do so. The legislation is so open to interpretation that it could easily be applied to anyone with a vehicle. For example, how do the Government propose to ensure that the police distinguish between a modified Transit van or Volkswagen camper used at the weekends and one that is lived in? How will they distinguish between a family going on a caravan holiday and a Gypsy or Traveller family with an identical caravan before stopping them and seizing their property because the police suspect that they might stop somewhere they do not have permission to do so?
The Minister for Policing and Crime also said that there is a high threshold to be met before the new powers kick in, but only one vehicle need be involved, whereas section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act requires six vehicles. The bar seems to have been significantly lowered in the Bill. The police currently have discretion to decide whether to use their powers under sections 61, 62 and 62A to 62E, in the latter cases where a suitable alternative pitch is available, but under the proposals in part 4 of the Bill, police will be dutybound to act when they are informed that a criminal offence has taken place.
The term “significant distress” is highly subjective. Given the high levels of prejudice and hatred towards Gypsy and Traveller communities, we are likely to see countless reports of criminal offences being committed, based on someone saying that they are significantly distressed by an encampment. Marc Willers QC, of Garden Court Chambers, said in the evidence sessions:
‘It seems to me that a lot of the language used is vague and uncertain. There is a reference to causing “significant distress” as one of the conditions that could lead to the criminalisation of an individual who refuses to leave a piece of land. That, in itself, brings inherent problems, because a private citizen could very easily invoke the power and leave a police officer with a fait accompli—in other words, they have no option but to arrest an individual who refuses to leave land in circumstances where the occupier says, “I am being caused significant distress by the very fact that this individual is parking on land that I occupy.”’
I am never happier than when I am in my own caravan—always on an official site—travelling around the country and into Europe. I have seen tremendous growth in the number of people driving motor homes, and I see them parked up all over the country, on private land, public land and elsewhere. Those people are also going to get caught up in this particular legislation, are they not?
Again, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. We want to make sure that people are free to enjoy the beautiful countryside we are lucky to have in the UK without fear of being criminalised in such a way.
“That distress can be engendered or underpinned by the prejudice that Gypsies and Travellers face in our society today. It is a widespread and long-standing prejudice, dating back to the first time that Romani Gypsies came to these shores in the 1500s… There may well be unwarranted and unjustified concerns on the part of the occupier, which could lead to the criminalisation of an individual who has nowhere else to go.” —[Official Report, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Public Bill Committee,
At the beginning, the hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about Romani Gypsies coming here more than 500 years ago, but the Gypsy encampments that we are talking about in places such as Ashfield are not the traditional, old-fashioned Gypsies sat there playing the mandolin, flogging lucky heather and telling fortunes. The Travellers I am talking about are more likely to be seen leaving your garden shed at 3 o’clock in the morning, probably with your lawnmower and half of your tools. That happens every single time they come to Ashfield. Does he agree that there is some confusion on the Opposition side as to who these people actually are?
I have said previously that we certainly do not condone any antisocial behaviour or criminal activity, but this is one of the many prejudices that exist about the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and it is these sorts of problems that would lead to people invoking some of the clauses in the Bill in order to criminalise people.
Trying to describe this as some sort of inherent prejudice misses the point, in that the activities of some of these people are what cause concern to a community—for example, leaving a load of rubbish behind on a lay-by. In Whitby, we get a lot of Travellers coming for the regatta, and it is quite common for restaurateurs to complain to me that they just walk out of restaurants without paying the bill, or haggle over the price and pay only half, and there is nothing they can do about it. That is the problem. It is based not on inherent prejudice, but on actual experiences of dealing with some of these people. They may be only a small minority of the travelling population, but they do tend to spoil it for the rest.
The situation that the right hon. Gentleman mentions would not be caught by the clause in this Bill anyway. On his wider point, it is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. If there is a problem, there is legislation currently available to deal with it. This is entirely unnecessary, and it ends up criminalising a community when the powers to deal with the problem already exist.
Another point made by the Minister for Policing was that the clean-up costs of the encampments can be huge. This is truly a problem, but it will not be solved by these clauses. Friends, Families & Travellers has pointed out that there are tried and tested ways of saving money while supporting families on roadside camps. Adopting a working, negotiated stopping policy where local authorities provide basic facilities such as toilets, water and rubbish collection, and working with families on encampments to agree suitable temporary locations and lengths of stay, has been proven to significantly reduce the costs attached to encampments. Research from De Montfort University found that a negotiated stopping policy developed in Leeds was shown to be self-financing when financially analysed. The creation of permanent pitches leads to the generation of rent and council tax for a local authority. If there are issues of commercial waste management such as large-scale fly-tipping, local authorities can use the legislation that already exists to deal with that crime. Additional legislation is not necessary.
About five years ago, we had Travellers come to a car park in my village and they left a load of rubbish there, which cost the council over £1,000 to clean up. A few weeks later, they came back again, left another load of rubbish that cost another £1,000. I got that fed up with the local council that I hired a JCB and put two concrete blocks there, to stop the Travellers coming back and to keep the beauty spot tidy, and I got a £100 fixed penalty notice from my local Labour authority. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that was the right course of action?
As I have said, there are powers in place to deal with fly-tipping. Where people feel the need to secure certain sites, it is down to the local authority to deal with those issues. I am certainly not encouraging people to take the law into their own hands and deal with things in the ways they see fit. That would be the road to chaos. I have heard what the hon. Gentleman said, but I am not going to comment on individual situations. The law is there, it is available and it can be used. It has been used quite successfully by many local authorities and the police.
There are other solutions for managing unauthorised encampments such as negotiated stopping whereby arrangements are made on agreed permitted times of stopping and to ensure the provision of basic needs such as water, sanitation and refuse collection. The manifesto commitment and the Government response referred to littering as a problem, but then why do the Government not consider providing more authorised camping sites with proper refuse facilities? Why do the Government think that confiscating someone’s home, putting them in prison and fining them is the answer? Why do the Government not instead consider the proposals of my hon. Friend Mr Perkins, whose private Member’s Bill would make it an offence to demand money to vacate an unauthorised encampment? That, along with a significant increase in permanent site provision, could prevent Gypsy and Traveller communities from being forced to make unauthorised encampments, having nowhere to go, and prevent the small minority of Travellers who demand money to leave sites where they are not entitled to be.
I acknowledge the difficulty that people or businesses can face with unauthorised encampments on their land. The Victims’ Commissioner put it well when she said that
“unless there is proper provision of authorised encampments, you have two sets of victims. I quite agree with you that the people who are distressed, damaged or whatever by an unauthorised encampment are victims of that. There is no doubt of it…but I want you to take into account the difficulty of finding somewhere to camp in a lot of places, which forces people into an unlawful place.” ––[Official Report, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Public Bill Committee,
The Policing Minister also claimed that money for sites was available in the £150 million affordable homes programme pot, but the last shared ownership affordable homes programme in 2016 to 2021, with a budget of £4.7 billion, awarded grants for just two Traveller sites across the whole country in the scheme’s entire period. They were both just transit sites in Birmingham and Cornwall. That was revealed by Friends, Families & Travellers, which FOI-ed Homes England to find that information. Funding for Traveller sites must be more than warm words.
The Minister also claimed that there has been an increase in the number of caravans on sites from 14,000 in 2010 to 20,000 in 2019, but she failed to point out that the number of caravans counted on sites is different from the actual number of pitches. The 14,000 and 20,000 figures are the total number of caravans counted that are listed as on authorised sites in the caravan count. While there has indeed been a rise from 14,730 in January 2010 to 19,967 in January 2020, the number of caravans on socially rented sites fell by 364.
Small-scale, family-run sites are great for those who have the resources to pull this off, but they are incredibly problematic and inaccessible for those who live in areas where land is at a premium and who have limited finances. It is the number of permanent pitches that can really improve things for Travellers, residents, local authorities and the police. Although there has been a 39.9% increase in transit pitches alone, it amounts to an increase of only 101 pitches—the equivalent of 10 per year over 10 years—with an overall decrease of 11.1% in permanent pitches on local authority and registered social landlord sites. In fact, the Government’s published figures show that there has been an overall 8.4% decrease of pitches on local authority Traveller sites. Nesil Caliskan, the chair of the Local Government Association, told us in the evidence sessions:
“There has to be a commitment from local authorities that those sites are allocated. The statutory legislation that already exists for these protected characteristics needs to be taken seriously. We should be meeting the obligations that are already set in statute, which says that we should have adequate sites for these communities, but we just do not.”––[Official Report, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Public Bill Committee,
The Government should focus on ensuring that local authorities have the resources they need to provide more space for Traveller communities to legally reside. By taking an enforcement approach to address the number of unauthorised encampments, the Government are overlooking the issue of the lack of site provision.
Part 4 of the Bill would cause harm to Gypsy and Traveller communities for generations. Gypsies and Travellers are already the most disproportionally represented group in the criminal justice system. Part 4 would compound the inequalities already experienced by Gypsies and Travellers and further push them into the criminal justice system, just for existing nomadically. I urge the Government to rethink these harmful proposals.
I am very grateful to Opposition Members for debating this matter, because it gives me the opportunity to clear up some of the misunderstandings that appear to have arisen during the course of the Bill being debated and scrutinised by Parliament, and indeed by organisations outside Parliament.
We know that the vast majority of Travellers are law-abiding citizens, but when damage, disruption or distress is caused where a person resides on land without consent, it can affect local communities as well as landowners. Residents often feel helpless as their land or local amenities are damaged or disrupted, and councils are left with huge clean-up bills in some cases. In 2016, Birmingham City Council incurred costs of £700,000 due to evictions and clean-up costs resulting from harmful unauthorised encampments—that is £700,000 of taxpayers’ money. It is only right that the Government seek to protect citizens who are adversely affected by harmful unauthorised encampments, and to deter them from being set up in the first instance.
We have held consultations on this issue. In the 2018 Government consultation on enforcement powers for unauthorised encampments, it was made clear that people want to see greater protection for local communities, and for the police to be given greater powers to crack down on unauthorised encampments. In 2019, we ran a further consultation in which we asked how we should extend those powers. Some 66% of the people responding on behalf of local authorities were in favour of a new criminal offence for intentional trespass. At the start of our proceedings in oral evidence, we heard powerful accounts from PCC Alison Hernandez about the impact of unauthorised encampments in her area of Devon and Cornwall. Only today we have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, and from my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield and for Blyth Valley, about the impact that unauthorised encampments and harmful behaviour within those encampments have had on their constituencies.
It is that caveat that is critical when we are looking at these clauses. Clause 61 introduces a new criminal offence for people residing on private or public land with vehicles who refuse to leave, without a reasonable excuse, when asked to do so, but only when they have caused, or are likely to cause, significant damage, disruption or distress. That is the key: that is what I kept asking those who spoke against these provisions during the evidence sessions. It is clear that for this offence to be committed, the conditions set out in subsection (4) of the proposed new section must be met: in other words, in a case where the person is residing on the land, significant damage or disruption has been caused or is likely to be caused as a result of P’s residence.
Would the Minister clear a point up for me, just so I can get straight in my head what this Bill is setting out to do? A few years ago, we had the tall ships regatta in Blyth, and all the caravan sites were full, the bed and breakfasts were full, the hotels were full—it was a fantastic time. We had a massive influx of people coming to Blyth Valley. My cousin is a landowner, and he was asked by a group of people who were coming down whether he could turn over part of a field so that people could put their caravans there. About 50 caravans turned up in total. They stayed, they enjoyed the weekend, and they cleared up after themselves—they had a litter pick when they left, putting all the rubbish to one side. My cousin did not charge the group, but they brought toys for the kids and flowers for his wife. The Bill is not setting out to stop tourism, is it? It is not setting out to stop that guy in his caravan or that man with his camper van. It is to stop the unlawful things that go on: litter, breaking into houses, and anything like that. If the Minister could clear that up for me, that would be fantastic.
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, and I am really happy to clarify this. I understand the concerns that have been voiced, but there is clearly a great deal of misunderstanding as to how these provisions are intended to act. They are intended to address the criminal, damaging, disrupting or distressing behaviour that arises from some unauthorised encampments—certainly not all; we are caveating this very carefully. Where there are unauthorised encampments in which people are behaving in a way that is causing, or is likely to cause, significant disruption, damage or distress, that is the behaviour we are trying to target.
I have listened very carefully to the arguments from the Opposition, particularly those regarding the provision of authorised encampments, and I am going to come on to the details of the Government’s plans for that in due course. However, to say that the answer to this behaviour is to provide authorised encampments is to miss the intention and, indeed, the very drafting of this clause. People can go on to a piece of land without agreement, but this offence will not be committed unless the conditions in subsection (4) are met. That is why I asked some of the witnesses, “What is an acceptable level of distress?” We as constituency MPs need to be able to look our constituents in the eye when we are voting on this legislation and say, “We have weighed up what may be significant disruption, what may be significant damage and what may be significant distress, and have tried to ensure that we are representing your views when we are opining on this piece of legislation.”
The Minister will be aware that quite often, this land is agricultural land, which is needed for farmers and landowners to graze their stock. In a dry season, as it was earlier in this season, the last thing that farmers want is land that they can use for their own livestock being taken over and possibly used for the grazing of the horses of people who have come on to their land.
Of course, it will not just be a question of horses. My farmers have the pleasure of farming some of the greatest, highest-quality agricultural land in the country, and they go to great efforts to ensure that their arable fields are ploughed, sowed, and treated to ensure optimum production of crop yields in each and every field that they farm. The use of a large vehicle—or, indeed, many large vehicles—which is not farm machinery and therefore not driven by the person who tends to a field going on to that field can cause damage. At this time of year, when driving around agricultural areas, one will see entrances to fields blockaded with all sorts of large items to try to ensure that they are not trespassed upon in the way that we are trying to tackle in the Bill.
I draw to colleagues’ attention the fact that we have caveated damage, distress and disruption with the word “significant”. We have tried throughout the Bill to strike a proportionate balance between landowners’ and communities’ rights to the peaceful enjoyment of and access to property and land, and Travellers’ rights to lead a nomadic way of life in line with their cultural heritage. The qualifying condition of “significant” damage, disruption or distress means that a higher threshold must be met than under the existing powers for tackling unauthorised encampments in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which clause 62 amends. Under the provisions of the 1994 Act, the test is simply causing damage, disruption or distress, so the higher threshold in the Bill helps to ensure that the offence and the powers of arrest, seizure or forfeiture are proportionate.
The Minister places a lot of stock in the word “significant”. To play devil’s advocate—perhaps against myself—she may be holding out a false promise to some of the communities we have heard described today. If a gang of Travellers turn up with 10 caravans, move on to someone’s land illegally—or it would be illegal under the Bill—take their rubbish away and do the work they want to do in the area, they will not be caught by the provision because they will not have caused “significant damage”. Communities across the country think that the Conservative Government are about to deliver all-encompassing, “we can move the Travellers on” legislation, but it is simply not the case.
In that scenario, the hon. Gentleman is right, in that we are addressing the behaviour that is set out in proposed new section 60C(4). In the event of a travelling community behaving as he describes, all the existing civil measures that a landowner can rely upon are there to move them on. We are trying to deal with behaviour that causes significant damage, distress and disruption where encampments are unauthorised. We are balancing things carefully because we want to address the serious scenarios that my hon. Friends have described in their constituencies.
As we have touched on in other contexts, the word “significant” is widely used in legislation, for example in section 14A of the Public Order Act 1986 on “Prohibiting trespassory assemblies”, which refers to “significant damage”. The criminal offence is committed only when a person resides or intends to reside on the land without consent with a vehicle. That avoids criminalising other forms of trespass, for example, the offence does not apply to a hiker, someone who is homeless or someone who inadvertently strays on to private land. I know that many colleagues of all parties have received communications from clubs, associations and people who have taken the time to write to their Member of Parliament or the Home Office on the issue and we very much hope that this will provide them with welcome reassurance. We all have the right to enjoy the beautiful national parks and green spaces that this great country has to offer and we will be able to continue to exercise that right.
The types of harms caught by the offence are defined in clause 61 and cover many of the problems we have been told that residents and landowners face through some unauthorised encampments. These include significant damage to land, property and the environment, as well as threatening behaviour to residents and landowners. Regarding distress, an offence is committed only if significant distress has been caused or is likely to be caused as a result of offensive conduct, which is then defined within the Bill. It is therefore not possible for an offence to be caught if a person is distressed by the mere presence of an unauthorised encampment on the land. That is where the civil measures I referred to earlier will come into play.
I was challenged with an example where a landowner is distressed and demands the police arrest someone. As with every other criminal offence, the police will only arrest someone if they are doing so in the course of their duties under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. They cannot and must not arrest someone just because a landowner or anyone else happens to demand it. It is important as we are discussing the Bill that we bear in mind the wider checks and balances within the criminal justice system and the wider principles that apply across all criminal offences.
If someone has met the previously mentioned conditions, to be guilty of the offence, they must fail to comply with the request to leave as soon as reasonably practicable and without reasonable excuse. The duties of the police in relation to safeguarding the vulnerable when taking enforcement decisions will continue to apply, as with any other criminal investigation.
The penalties are consistent with squatting legislation and existing powers to tackle unauthorised encampments. The offence is also accompanied by a power for the police to seize the vehicle and other property of the person committing the offence, which ensures that enforcement action is effective and could also have a deterrent effect. Seizure powers are already conferred on the police in relation to failure to comply with a police direction under the 1994 Act. It is right that the police should have equivalent powers in the context of the new criminal offence.
The seizure power is proportionate. Where possible, police decisions to arrest and seize vehicles should continue to be taken in consultation with the local authority which, where possible, would need to offer assurance that it has relevant measures in place to meet any welfare and safeguarding needs of those affected by the loss of their accommodation. The police will continue to undertake any enforcement action in compliance with their equality and human rights obligations.
The shadow Minister set out the police evidence on these new powers. The responses to the 2018 consultation showed a clear desire from the public for the police to be given more powers to tackle unauthorised encampments, but unauthorised Traveller sites require a locally driven, multi-agency response, led by local authorities and supported by the police. There are incentives in place for local authorities to encourage the provision of authorised Traveller pitches. Local planning authorities should continue to assess the need for Traveller accommodation and identify land for sites.
It is only right that the police are given the powers to tackle instances of unauthorised encampments that meet the conditions of proposed new subsection (4). We are very pleased that the Opposition are adopting the position that we should legislate for changes to police powers when requested by the police, because that gives us hope that they will support the measures in part 3, which we have just debated and which have been requested by the police.
This new offence is not targeted at any particular group. Rather, anyone who causes significant damage, disruption or distress in the specified conditions and who refuses to leave without reasonable excuse when asked to do so will be caught by the offence.
Section 61 of the 1994 Act is currently exercisable where any of the trespassers has caused damage to the land or to property on the land or used threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards the occupier, Under the amendments in clause 62, the relevant harms comprise damage, disruption or distress, including environmental damage, such as excessive noise and litter. The harms do not need to be significant for police to be able to direct trespassers away in the first instance. That will make it easier for the police to direct trespassers away where encampments are causing problems for landowners, communities or businesses.
We have also increased the period in which trespassers directed away from the land must not return, from three months to 12 months. That is designed to strengthen enforcement powers, acting as a greater deterrent in the first place, and to protect more proportionately the rights of landowners and local communities. We are also enabling the police to direct trespassers away from land that forms part of a highway, to ensure that directions can be given to trespassers on roads.
Our overarching aim is to ensure fair and equal treatment for Travellers in a way that facilitates their traditional nomadic way of life while respecting the interests of local residents and the settled community. We recognise that the vast majority of Travellers are law-abiding citizens, but unauthorised sites can often give an unfair negative image of nomadic communities, and cause distress and misery to residents who live nearby. We are equally clear that we will not tolerate law breaking.
Statutory guidance will be issued, as provided for in clause 63, and will outline examples of what might constitute a reasonable excuse for not complying with the request to leave. That guidance will be vital to support the police in discharging those functions and will help to ensure a consistent application of the powers across England and Wales. The police must have regard to the guidance when exercising the relevant functions. We envisage that the guidance will set out, for example, what might constitute significant damage, disruption and distress, and what might constitute a reasonable excuse, where someone fails to comply with a request to leave the land. It will be up to the police and courts to decide whether someone has a reasonable excuse for not complying, depending on the specific facts of that case.
We recognise the rights of Travellers to follow a nomadic way of life, in line with their cultural heritage. Our aim is for settled and Traveller communities to be able to live side by side harmoniously, and we hope that the clear rules and boundaries that we are putting in place will facilitate that. We remain committed to delivering a cross-Government strategy to tackle the inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. The planning policy for Traveller sites is clear that local planning authorities should assess the need for Traveller accommodation and identify land for sites. Local housing authorities are required to assess their housing and accommodation needs under the Housing Act 1985, including for those who reside in caravans. There is wider Government support for the provision of Traveller sites via the new homes bonus, which provides an incentive for local authorities to encourage housing growth in their areas, and rewards net increases in effective housing stock, including the provision of authorised Traveller pitches.
That is a matter for local authorities. We have the planning policy for Traveller sites, which is down to the local planning authority. In the hon. Gentleman’s area, I know not whether his local council agrees with him that there should be more sites, but it would be a matter for the local authority to address with local residents.
We remain committed to delivering the strategy to tackle the inequalities faced by the communities that we have discussed. There is the additional affordable homes programme for local authorities to deliver a wide range of affordable homes to meet the housing needs of people in different circumstances and different housing markets, including funding for new Traveller pitches.
We believe that we have struck the right balance between the rights of those who live a nomadic way of life and the rights of local communities to go about their lives without the significant damage, disruption and distress outlined in proposed new section 60C(4), which, regrettably, some unauthorised encampments cause. I therefore commend clauses 61 to 63 to the Committee.