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.