Katherine Fletcher (South Ribble) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 300139, relating to trespass.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I have demonstrated that not all talents are distributed equally, as I have managed to pour water all over my speaking notes. If there is any disintegration of these words, I beg your forgiveness.
This debate is about how we access the countryside, how much we value it and what laws should govern that access. The petition proposes changes to legislation currently going through Parliament. In short, it asks that we do not criminalise trespass. Before its closure in September last year, the petition had been signed by 134,932 people, 185 of whom are from my own fabulous patch of South Ribble.
In seeking to represent fairly the different sides of this complex debate, I met a number of individuals and organisations to hear their views. I am particularly grateful for their time and expert insight. My sincere thanks go to the petition’s originator, Guy Shrubsole; Gemma Cantelo, representing the views of the Ramblers; Abbey Kirkby, for sharing her thoughts from the Traveller community; as well as George Dunn, from the Tenant Farmers Association; Sam Durham, from the National Farmers Union; and Andrew Gillett, from the Country Land and Business Association.
With those thanks over, let me take a step into the detail of this debate. My right hon. Friend the Minister has stated that the Government
“made a clear manifesto commitment to act on the issue of unauthorised encampments and…remain determined to ensure police have the powers they need.”
As a result, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill introduces intentional trespass as a criminal offence. The “Don’t criminalise trespass” petition was set up by Guy as he has a series of concerns about unintended consequences for countryside lovers and those who seek to reside in it. In his view, criminalising intentional trespass could lead to, although not exclusively: prosecuting ramblers who stray from the path by accident—I am sure that is something that the Minister, the Chair and all of us in this room have done, although I confess that I am normally in possession of a mountain bike and a rucksack when issuing unfettered apologies for being in the wrong part of the countryside—preventing participation in wild camping, even for personal safety or enjoyment; limiting the right to peaceful protest; and forging new paths in the countryside. Guy is also keen to highlight the wider implications of criminalising intentional trespass on the lives of Traveller communities across the country.
Through an online survey, the Petitions Committee sought the opinions of affected groups and forums. A remarkable 84% of respondents felt that criminalisation of intentional trespass would have major or moderate effects on how they live their lives. Further conversations with representatives of the Ramblers regarding access and right of way suggest that they share similar concerns about the criminalisation of those who have become lost or strayed from the footpath. They argue that the likelihood of becoming lost with unkempt footpaths and limited signage—and, in my case, a lack of capability —inhibits visitors from venturing out and exploring our beautiful countryside. Discouraging rambling should not be a consequence of the legislation, and nor should be it threatened.
Respondents to the Petitions Committee survey also suggested that urban dwellers—I was most definitely one in my youth—include higher levels of minorities and the economically disadvantaged, who already have less access to outdoor spaces in England. They could be disproportionately affected through either the reality or the perception that they will be criminalised for accessing the countryside, and the petitioners feel extremely strongly that this should not be the case.
There were concerns that the proposed changes in the law would add further barriers to outdoor access. I am proud that we are a country with 140,000 miles of public rights of way, mainly founded through public footpaths and bridleways. Such routes to access to the countryside, nature and wildlife are here to stay, and they are extremely important as an outlet for our educational, mental and physical needs. Like the petitioners, I use them regularly on my bike and on foot, and I would be deeply concerned if new legislation were to deter others from enjoying the beauty of England—north or south.
Many robust concerns were raised about the unintended consequences of the legislation. Crucially, such opinions were mirrored in the conversations that I have had with rambler groups, farmers and landowners. During those discussions, it became clear that at the heart of the debate is a key phrase: “to intentionally reside”. It many cases, a lost walker has no intent to reside unlawfully on a farmer’s field. When discussing this further, Guy’s experience of wild camping in Dartmoor is a potential model. Stays there are restricted to a maximum of two nights, which prevents a camper from establishing intent to reside, and arguably they are at no risk of committing trespass by that account.
The legislation that sparked the petition is aimed at tackling illegal encampments, where visitors occupy land and do not leave when asked. In representing the petitioners, I felt it appropriate to speak to those whom the legislation seeks to support. Within my constituency of South Ribble, there have been a series of trespass issues for landowners. As trespass is currently a civil offence, returning access to landowners’ property can be a lengthy process with temporary results. According to my local landowners who have reported back to me, the current reprimands for trespass do not equal the financial and environmental cost. Despite the focus on unauthorised encampments, petitioners are concerned that under the proposed changes to the law, there is a real possibility that the legislation will be manipulated to criminalise participants in wild camping, mountain biking and rambling who get lost. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what he can do to assuage the extremely valid concerns.
Representatives of the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and the Tenant Farmers Association were keen to highlight that farmers and landowners are delighted to share the countryside with others, as long as visitors are respectful. That means steering clear of livestock and crop production, and adhering to the countryside code. However, they were keen to speak to the points in the petition. In their view, instances of trespass with residency have become a larger problem, with the use of intimidation, violence and environmental destruction being reported to them. They felt that current legislation is not a useful tool to prevent such issues. In order to best prevent and discourage intentional and destructive trespass, it seems logical to them to make it a criminal offence.
I discussed these points with Abbie from Friends, Families and Travellers during a really brilliant conversation. She expressed the importance of not associating certain behaviours with all members of the Traveller community. Given the authorised Traveller sites in South Ribble, I must wholeheartedly agree with her. She recognised a persistent problem with unlawful encampments, but she has huge concerns that further legislation compounds the inequalities experienced by the Traveller community. The Bill strengthens police powers, including the ability to seize a vehicle, for example. For those in the Traveller community, that could mean the seizure of their home and possessions. The number of lawful sites in which the Traveller community can reside is limited, so Abbie and the petitioners argue strongly that improved site provision, not further legislation, is key to preventing issues. On behalf of the Traveller community, she says quite clearly: “Don’t criminalise trespass.”
Owing to the delay caused by covid, since the petition’s inception and our meetings, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—the subject of the petition—received its Second Reading in the House of Commons on 16 March. The Bill contains provisions on unauthorised encampments, including the creation of an offence
“relating to residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle”.
My understanding is that that phrasing is intended in part to address the concerns raised by the petitioners. The new offence has been phrased in such a way as to ensure that the right of ramblers and others to enjoy the countryside is not affected. Despite that, under the definition provided, a bicycle could constitute a vehicle, which could put me and my haphazard mountain biking at risk. The inclusion of bicycles in the definition has been highlighted as a concern of many of those who have signed the petition. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to those points.
The petitioners are worried about the introduction of a barrier to their access to the wonderful British countryside, and about the idea that it would put others off accessing our bridleways and footpaths for recreation and enjoyment, good mental health, and engagement with nature—all those amazing things. Although farmers and landowners are experiencing difficulty with unlawful encampments, with which they believe the current statute cannot assist, they are mindful of the unintended consequences of legislation.
The Traveller community have concerns about their way of life, and about being judged by the actions of a minority, which is a concern shared by the petitioners. I repeat my grateful thanks to all those who signed the petition, and to those who took the time to meet me in the run-up to the debate. I look forward to hearing colleagues’ responses on this difficult and nuanced subject. The petition says, “Don’t criminalise trespass”, but is that the same as residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle?