Last summer was a difficult time for residents of Thatcham and other areas including Strouds Green, the Racecourse, Aldermaston and Theale, with groups of travellers moving on to sites and causing disruption. There were over 50 unauthorised encampments across West Berkshire and, although some in the traveller community are law-abiding, there was also an enormous amount of aggressive and anti-social behaviour which is completely unacceptable. Together with Alok Sharma, MP for Reading West, I pressed Thames Valley Police Chief, Francis Habgood for action, making it clear that it was vital that the Police were on the front foot when it came to exercising Section 61 powers.
Ultimately, I would like to see the ‘Irish option’ adopted here which would make travellers trespassing a criminal offence but meanwhile I am determined to see the powers of the Police used in full. Under current law there are circumstances in which the Police can deal with illegal encampments as a matter of immediacy and evict individuals from a site, without first having to apply to the courts. Alok and I urged Thames Valley Police to make full use of these powers where appropriate but we both want to see legislation strengthened to minimise the distress these illegal encampments cause in the first place. The Police and Crime Commissioner, Anthony Stansfeld, is supportive of this move and I also wrote to Chief Constable Sara Thornton, the Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, asking her what guidance there is, for Police forces around the country facing illegal traveller encampments, on the threshold at which they are permitted to use Section 61 powers to require travellers to move on. It seems to me that there is a reluctance to use this aspect of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 even when travellers have broken padlocks or forcibly removed barriers to access. You can read my letter here and her response here.
I also raised the issue in Parliament last June, asking the Leader of the House to consider an opportunity in the House for colleagues who have experienced similar problems with illegal encampments of travellers in their constituencies to raise the need for a change in the law as the situation is totally unacceptable for law-abiding people whose lives have been made a misery by the selfish and illegal actions of these individuals. She confirmed that the Government was looking at the law around illegal encampments and whether there are sufficient powers and it is just a matter of enforcement or whether more powers are needed to enable local authorities to deal effectively with what is a really serious problem for local communities. A Government consultation on the effectiveness of powers for dealing with unauthorised development and encampments ran until June 15 and the results have now been published in February 2019. You can read the full report here. A summary of proposed Government action can be seen in this letter from the Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and the Home Secretary. This is full of good intentions such as amending the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to increase the period of time in which trespassers directed from land would be unable to return, to lower the number of vehicles needing to be involved in an unauthorised encampment before police powers can be exercised from six down to two, and to enable the police to remove trespassers from land that forms part of the highway, but I am disappointed that this is going to involve a further consultation. However, it is good to see that the Home Office will conduct a review of the ‘Irish option’, whether the act of trespassing when setting up an encampment should be criminalised. This could act as a real deterrent to such activity in the future. I will continue to monitor developments and to press for action to be taken. At a local level I’ll continue to work closely with West Berkshire Council, the Town Councils and the Police to make sure our response to any illegal encampments is rapid and effective.
Many of you signed my petition which was delivered to the Speaker in November. This was the wording and you can see the presentation in the Chamber of the House of Commons here.
‘It has been a particularly difficult summer for many of the residents of West Berkshire, who have been subjected to illegal Traveller encampments close to where they live—mainly on public land, but in every sense in circumstances that have brought great difficulty to them and their neighbours. I therefore submit a petition to the House on behalf of 244 signatories, with a further 366 on my website, as well as on behalf of the many people across neighbouring constituencies who have suffered from the over 50 illegal encampments we have had in West Berkshire this summer.
‘The petition states:
‘The petition of residents of Berkshire,
‘Declares that they have suffered an intolerable imposition from an increasing number of unauthorised encampments.
‘The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to introduce legislation to make trespass a criminal offence, and strengthen the powers used by the police to deal with illegal encampments, in addition to those already available under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
‘And the petitioners remain, etc.’
Note: You can sign up for the Thames Valley Alert Community Messaging scheme which is a useful way to keep informed. You can report incidents either to the Police by calling 101 or to West Berkshire Council on 01635 551111.