Ross Mackinnon: Tougher penalties for illegal encampments will come as a relief to private landowners

13 Apr

Cllr Ross Mackinnon is Executive Member for Finance and Economic Development at West Berkshire Council.

Media coverage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has understandably been dominated by the many violent protests in defence of the right to peacefully protest – an irony probably lost on the rent-a-lefty-mob halfwits setting fire to police vans.

But for me as a councillor in a rural ward, here in West Berkshire, the most significant change the Bill will bring is only just now beginning to attract media interest. There is to be a new criminal offence of residing in a vehicle on land without permission – giving long overdue hope to rural communities like mine blighted by the distress and misery associated with illegal encampments.

Every summer, we brace ourselves for the inevitable intimidation, criminal damage, and economic costs of dealing with the encampments themselves – and the often extensive environmental clean-up operations required in their aftermath.

Long-suffering residents plead to have their concerns taken seriously at parish councils, neighbourhood action groups, ward surgeries, and on village Facebook groups – with varying degrees of success.

Existing police powers under Section 61 of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act allow police to move encampments on if there are “aggravating factors” such as damage to the land or threatening behaviour. Rank and file police officers tell me they would be more than happy to exercise those powers, but a decision on use of Section 61 must be made by a senior officer who is often reluctant to do so, given the potential media interest and loud opposition from well-organised advocacy groups.

If the police won’t act, the civil courts are the last resort. If the encampment is on Council-owned land, the resolution tends to be quicker (although the damage and pollution are no less severe), as local authorities have recourse to more remedies – but for the poor small private landowner whose farm has been usurped, a lengthy and costly court process is the only route to reclaim their land and their livelihood. This cannot be right.

The new offence will impose a criminal penalty of up to three months’ imprisonment and a fine of up to £2,500 for anyone with a vehicle on land who fails to leave and remove their property when asked to do so. The police will also have the power to seize offenders’ vehicles – this will be a powerful deterrent for those who would otherwise occupy the land illegally. In my view, it is likely that the incidence of illegal encampments will fall sharply for fear of losing expensive vehicles.

It’s fair to say that The Guardian is not supportive. Opposition to the reforms seems to come from urban left-wingers who have never encountered the harsh reality of life next to an illegal encampment, and from advocacy groups claiming to represent Gipsy and Traveller communities, who suggest that a legal challenge to the new law is likely, citing Equalities Act and Human Rights concerns that the new law discriminates against protected groups.

I find the discrimination argument unpersuasive. Illegal encampments are undesirable for society as a whole and should be prevented – regardless of the alleged common characteristics of the perpetrators. I have written before about how individuals should be held responsible for their actions, not their wider race, gender or ethnicity.

Also, it’s important to stress that the vast majority of gipsies and travellers are law-abiding citizens who do not illegally occupy land. Perceptions of the wider traveller community are unfairly tainted by the damage caused by a minority. Most gypsies and travellers will be unaffected by the new law.

In the same way, most violent crime is committed by men – yet we have laws against violent crime without men being discriminated against under equalities legislation. Forced Marriage is a practice traditionally carried out within specific ethnic and religious communities, yet we have laws against forced marriage.

The same principle should apply here – there can be nothing more in keeping with the principle of equality, than the law of the land being applied equally to all citizens.

Ross Mackinnon: In defence of men

18 Mar

Cllr Ross Mackinnon is Executive Member for Finance and Economic Development at West Berkshire Council.

Not all men, but it is always men. Men are the problem. Don’t protect your girls; educate your boys. We are all collectively guilty. All men must do better. We need a curfew for men. Almost all violence against women is inflicted by men, therefore you must know a man who has assaulted a woman.

None of these statements are rational. None of these statements are logical. None stand up to scrutiny. But no-one wants to hear that right now.

In the wake of the shocking, horrific murder of poor Sarah Everard, we’re looking for something, someone, anyone, to blame. It’s an emotional instinct, not a rational one.

We should not live in a world where a 33-year-old woman, wearing bright clothing, keeping to busy, well-lit streets, making all the right decisions, is abducted from the street and murdered. Something has gone horribly wrong, and therefore something must be done immediately. There is exasperation and there is anger. Both are compellingly understandable emotions. I share them.

For the record, we also shouldn’t live in a world where a woman wearing a revealing outfit, drunk on a night out and flirting with strangers in a nightclub is assaulted. raped or murdered either. We shouldn’t live in a world where a woman is abused by her partner. Each and all of these crimes are abhorrent.

The police were in a no-win situation in Clapham Common at the weekend . By most accounts, the vigil was proceeding peacefully until the attendees were asked to disperse. Then things turned ugly. “No Justice, No Peace, F**k the police”. It’s an odd sort of peaceful vigil where some of those present proudly display All Cops Are Bastards signs. It isn’t the first time a good cause has been hijacked by extremists, and it won’t be the last.

Some of the arrest footage looks very heavy-handed, although unless you see the actions which led the arrests then you don’t have the full picture. It may well be that rank and file and senior officers have serious questions to answer.

But no-one wants to hear that right now.

It’s absolutely true that the vast majority of crime, especially violent crime, is committed by men. There are biological reasons for this statistic, of course. Testosterone causes aggression, from puberty onwards. Most male brains keep a lid on it. A minority don’t. Armed robbery. GBH. Murder of men and of women. Sexual Assault. Rape. All overwhelmingly committed by violent men.

But a tiny minority of the male population. The current media narrative of “all men are the problem” will lead women and girls to see all men as a threat. You may think this a good thing. I don’t.

Imposing collective responsibility or guilt on a group, be it defined by gender, race, religion, or any fundamental characteristic, is fundamentally unconservative, and something I hope I never see our party or our Government dabble with. We don’t do it after terrorist attacks, and we shouldn’t do it now.

Crimes are committed by individual people, and those individuals bear all the responsibility. A responsibility they should bear very heavily indeed with the harshest of punishments. Far too often, men convicted of sexual offences are given pathetically lenient sentences. Let’s start with that.

Other solutions? Precious few, at least credible ones. Over the last few days, we’ve heard that it’s a cultural problem. We need men off the streets in the evening. We need more stories written by women on TV. We must educate our boys, teach them that assaulting women, grabbing women, raping women are all wrong.

As if we’re not teaching them that already.  These terrible crimes aren’t carried out by uninformed men simply crying out for education on gender relations. The rapists and murderers already know it’s wrong. Their minds, their lives, have gone horribly wrong somewhere down the line. They make a calculated decision that they’ll probably get away with it. Or they don’t care if they get away with it or not, because their evil compulsion is all that matters.

I don’t have a shopping list of solutions to prevent violence against women because there are no easy ones. Surely those men at risk of becoming violent sexual offenders could be identified earlier? I hope so, but it’s not my area of expertise. Can the police improve the way they investigate crimes? I’m sure they can and I’m sure they will. The conviction rate for sexual offences is pitiful. I wish it were higher. But we can’t make it higher by lowering the burden of proof, or by reversing the principle of innocent until proven guilty. Or maybe more innocent men being convicted is a price to pay for more guilty men being convicted? Over to you. All I know is that holding half the population collectively responsible for the actions of a tiny minority will not go down as our finest moment.