This summer has been 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. During May and June there were at least 22 unauthorised encampments across West Berkshire. Although I was unable to attend due to a funeral, Alok Sharma, MP for Reading West (which includes Theale), met with Thames Valley Police Chief, Francis Habgood on behalf of both our constituencies. Alok made it clear that it was vital that the Police were on the front foot when it came to exercising Section 61 powers. These are the legal permissions that can be granted by the courts when there is criminality involved, either in getting on to the site in the first place or criminal activity in and around the encampment, or in cases where there are six or more vehicles occupying the site. With my strong support, he also suggested a Thames Valley Police illegal encampments hotline for concerned residents to report these crimes easily and effectively.
A Section 61 notice was finally issued to the group of travellers encamped in Thatcham requiring them to be off the land by 10 o’clock the following day. I had visited the site beforehand, speaking to retailers and residents and to local Councillors, three of whom lived close by. Council officials had worked tirelessly to sort this problem and that hard work needs to be communicated better to concerned residents. There also needs to be a quicker route to issuing Section 61 notices and careful consideration given to securing potential sites against these illegal incursions. Of course there are some in the traveller community who are law-abiding but this summer we have seen an enormous amount of aggressive and anti-social behaviour which is completely unacceptable. I would like to see the ‘Irish option’ adopted here which would make travellers trespassing a criminal offence.
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 have 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 have also written 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 and I will be raising this at my next meeting with the local Police at the end of this month.
I also raised the issue in Parliament on June 28, 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. The results are being analysed now and will be reported in due course.
Meanwhile, can I urge you to sign my petition here:
The residents of Berkshire have suffered an intolerable imposition from an increasing number of unauthorised encampments. The Petitioners therefore urge the Government to introduce legislation to make trespass a criminal offence. This will 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.
Please encourage anyone you know to sign it as well. This petition will be presented when Parliament resumes in the autumn.
Meanwhile the Police are encouraging us all to 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.