Trespass Debate

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Department: Home Office
Monday 19th April 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Kit Malthouse Portrait The Minister for Crime and Policing (Kit Malthouse)
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It is a great pleasure to appear under your beneficent hand on this beautiful spring day, Mr Bone. As I am sure colleagues are aware, the debate was convened on the strength of an online petition submitted on 5 September last year. Since then, the Government have published our response to the public consultation “Strengthening Police Powers to Tackle Unauthorised Encampments”, and we have introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which sets out our measures to introduce the new criminal offence. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) for her introduction to the debate, and to all hon. Members who have participated.

I understand that those who signed the petition were primarily concerned about the impact that the new offence might have on the ancient freedoms of walkers and the wider public to access the countryside. As somebody who represents 220 square miles of beautiful chalk downland in the northern part of Hampshire, I am pleased to be able to say that those who wish to enjoy the countryside, including in my constituency, will not be prevented from doing so by the offence. We made that clear in our response to the consultation, and the clauses currently before Parliament set out the circumstances in which the new powers can be used.

Our proposals, which were included in our manifesto, are aimed squarely at unauthorised encampments. For many of our constituents, and for landowners, those cause damage, destruction or distress, as well as causing significant cost to local authorities. Residents often feel helpless as their local amenities are damaged or disrupted, and for some councils, such as in Birmingham in 2016, with £700,000 of clean-up costs, the bills can be huge. I have seen that repeatedly in my own constituency.

It is only right, then, that the Government seek to protect citizens and strike a balance for those who are adversely affected by unauthorised encampments. The measures that we are introducing in the Bill will give the police the powers to bring an end to the misery caused by some unauthorised encampments. The new criminal offence will apply where a person who resides on land with a vehicle causes significant damage, disruption or distress and does not leave when asked to do so. That means that the powers will not apply to people camping in tents in the countryside or to others who inadvertently stray on to private land.

The Government have also amended the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which gives police the power to direct people away from land in the first instance when they are causing lower levels of harm, disruption or distress. We will broaden the types of harm that can be caught under that provision to include physical damage to the land and non-physical damage, such as damage to the environment, which includes excessive noise and litter. Disruption includes an interference with a person’s ability to access any facilities located on the land or otherwise make lawful use of the land, or with a supply of water, energy or fuel. Offensive conduct, such as threats or abuse, is also covered. We will also increase from three months to 12 months the period for which trespassers directed away from the land must not return. We will enable police to direct people away from land that forms part of a highway.

I reassure hon. Members again that those who wish to access the countryside to walk, hike, climb or cycle—as many of us love to do—will not be caught by the measures. We all have the right to enjoy the beautiful national parks and green spaces that this country has to offer, and we will be able to continue to exercise that right, even when the Bill is passed. I am sure that that will come as welcome relief to those clubs, associations and individuals who have taken the time to write to their MPs or the Home Office about the issue.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter
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Will the Minister explain why he thinks that the organisations that he indicates, such as the Ramblers Association, whose comments I read out, are not at all persuaded by the Government’s view? Will he, the Minister for Policing, address the police’s concerns? They do not believe that the provisions are sensible. Will he also address what the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), said about equalities and human rights law? He must be familiar with the leading cases of Chapman v. UK and Bromley v. Persons Unknown. Does he think he will face legal challenges if this goes through?

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse
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I will come on to many of those issues later in my speech if the hon. Gentleman will be patient.

We received significant support in the consultation for some of these measures. Some 94% of local authorities that responded to the consultation supported one or more of the proposed amendments. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his speech, will extend the powers of the police to direct trespassers away from land.

During the passage of the Bill, I hope we will be able to reassure the groups that have perhaps taken alarm at these measures that they will not be affected. Let us remember that there is the lock that significant harm and disruption must be under way and that people must be residing with a vehicle, so this does not cover ramblers, who, presumably, are without a vehicle—I am not sure whether a canoe counts as a vehicle or indeed whether one can reside in a canoe. Therefore, those who are wild camping or enjoying the countryside will be unaffected. Hopefully, that will come as a relief.

I now turn to the impact on Traveller communities set out in the petition statement. The legislation is not anti-Traveller and it would be wrong to portray it as such. We know that a small minority of people in unauthorised encampments cause harm, disruption and distress, but the vast majority of Travellers are law-abiding citizens, and unauthorised sites can often give an unfair and negative image of their communities. Enforcement will obviously not be based on ethnicity. Rather, anyone who causes significant harm, disruption or distress under the specified conditions and who refuses to leave when asked to do so will be caught by the offence. The Government want to ensure fair and equal treatment for all travelling communities. Settled and travelling communities should be able to live side by side harmoniously, and indeed integrate. We hope that the clear rules and boundaries that we are putting in place will facilitate that. The police are fully trained, and we expect that their actions will continue to be compliant with equality and human rights law.

The Government remain committed to developing a cross-Government strategy, as mentioned by my shadow, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), to tackle the inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. We are also committed to supporting the provision of Traveller sites via the new homes bonus. This 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.

In addition, the £11.5 billion affordable homes programme will deliver a wide range of affordable homes to meet the housing needs of people in different circumstances and different housing markets, and will include funding for new Traveller pitches. Data shows that we have seen an increase in the number of caravans on authorised sites from 14,498 in July 2010 to 20,043 in July 2019, showing that this locally led planning system works. We expect that local planning authorities should assess the need for Traveller sites in their areas and make provision accordingly. Local authorities are best placed to make decisions about the number and location of such sites locally, having due regard to national policy and local circumstances.

Finally, I note that the e-petition refers to the impact that the new offence will have on clamping down on peaceful protest. Of course, the right to protest is a fundamental human right and is central to our democracy. Although the new offences do not apply to protests, we are introducing other measures in the Bill that will enable the police to better manage highly disruptive protests, striking a better balance between the rights of protestors and the rights of others to go about their business unhindered.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter
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Will the Minister give way?

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse
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I will not. I hope this Chamber is reassured that the measures the Government are taking are right, balanced and measured. We are delivering on one of the manifesto commitments that we were elected on. I commend the Government’s response to the e-petition.