I know many constituents share my concern about the lack of powers that police and local authorities have to deal with illegal encampments. As such, I was very pleased to be able to share our local experiences with colleagues during today's parliamentary debate and welcome the commitments from Government to tackle this issue.
Not only do these illegal encampments cost local council tax payers a huge amount of money in legal fees to get them moved, but there is than an extensive clean up operation required afterwards. In addition, all of the normal community activities which take place, such as dog walking and children’s football, all have to stop while they are there.
It is also important to stress that the proposed measures would not deter anyone from lawful access to private land. Ramblers, walkers and riders will not see their legitimate and time-honoured access restricted by what the Government propose.
You can read my full contribution below:
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. As we consider the important matter of illegal encampments and unauthorised access to land, may I commend my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) for her eloquent and balanced introduction to the debate? It is important that I be clear from the outset that I and my constituents strongly support the introduction of tougher measures to protect land and property from trespass, whether it belongs to private individuals or the taxpayer in the form of central Government or local authorities.
I pay tribute to the work of Councillor John Warmisham, the Labour leader of the UK delegation at the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in the Council of Europe, who has led work for many years at an international level to improve the way in which human rights law, as administered by local authorities and regional governments, treats Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. His work has been very important in informing my thinking on the subject and my approach to the petition today.
There seems to be no evidence that the proposed strengthened measures would deter anyone from lawful access to private land. Ramblers, walkers and riders do not see their legitimate and time-honoured access restricted by what the Government propose. It is very clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble said, that powers to prosecute are triggered only in circumstances where someone is present where they have no right to be, and when they refuse to leave when asked.
In my constituency, on the edge of London, we have many popular walking and rambling paths, mountain bike routes and bridleways. The users of these amenities, many of which are maintained by private landowners as part of the good husbandry of their holdings, should have no fear that they will be negatively impacted. It is also clear that the law in Scotland might offer a model to consider, and I know that the Government have been consulting on that. Trespass is a criminal offence, but legitimate use of the property is included. Other Members may disagree with that, but that is the legal interpretation that I saw in the briefing note. I look forward to being enlightened.
Many communities have suffered significant blight from unauthorised encampments for too long. I live opposite a green space owned and maintained by the London Borough of Hillingdon, and it was the subject of one such incursion. Like many people across the country, other residents and I were treated to the sight of people defecating publicly opposite our homes, with rubbish strewn around and extensive vandalism. Normal activities such as children’s football, outdoor exercise and dog walking all had to stop while the legal process was followed.
Once that notice was served, I watched alongside those other residents as campers gathered all the glass that they had accumulated during their stay, smashing it to fragments and scattering it across the whole area, to maximise the harm and inconvenience that their illegal incursion caused the community. When they finally departed, they left a massive clean-up job and, for that season, a bill in excess of £300,000 for council tax payers to meet. I speak from personal experience when I say that the measures are long overdue.
Some will argue that legitimate lifestyles are at risk of being criminalised. I wholly disagree. Not one moment of what I witnessed was legitimate. Both the settled and the temporary residents of local caravan sites, which are made available for public use, would agree, because they pay council tax to clear up that kind of mess, too. Breaking into other people’s property, causing misery and stress at a massive cost is simply unacceptable. It is not a lifestyle; it is straightforward criminality, and it must be robustly dealt with when it occurs.
Clearly, there is a balance to be struck. At the moment, the balance weighs too heavily against the landowner and the taxpayer, and in favour of the small minority of criminals who choose to exploit the fact. It is absolutely right that the Government take heed of the concerns of communities across London and the rest of the country, and enact the measures.