David Johnston: These charities are wrong to oppose the Government’s plan to tackle unauthorised traveller camps

10 Jul

David Johnston is MP for Wantage.

I have great respect for such homelessness charities as Shelter, Crisis, Centrepoint and St Mungo’s – indeed, I worked with some of them in my previous career, both as a charity chief executive and as a volunteer. But they’re wrong to take aim at the measures to tackle unauthorised traveller camps in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Here’s why.

When the Bill came before the House of Commons in April, I looked back at how often unauthorised camps had appeared in my constituency. Across the two district councils that the Wantage and Didcot area covers, there had been at least one unauthorised camp in 20 of the previous 34 weeks. In 32 of the 34 weeks, there had been at least one somewhere in Oxfordshire.

If you’re fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with unauthorised camps, they aren’t just something set up in the middle of nowhere by nomads looking to mind their own business. If they were, MPs like me, across the country, would not receive as many complaints as we do from residents at their wits’ end.

The reality behind the complaints is that the camps are often right next to people’s homes, and are frequently accompanied by fly-tipping, litter, and damage in the surrounding area; loud noise throughout the night (quad bikes being a common complaint); and all too often verbal abuse towards local residents and vandalism. It is then frequently local councils that are left with the costs of cleaning up once the camps are gone.

Here is a typical email from a constituent:

“Every time they arrive they fly tip, steal from local shops, leave a trail of destruction and cause alarm and distress in our local community. They even stole children’s scooters from the local primary school which were later recovered on their illegal encampment.”

Here’s another:

“As of tomorrow they will have been here for a week….I am having to make numerous reports to the police each day for harassment, criminal damage and antisocial behaviour, which is starting to have a significant impact on my physical and mental health as I feel under siege in my own home.”

It is common for those on the Labour benches and from certain pressure groups to say that the new laws to tackle this would somehow ‘criminalise the traveller’s way of life’. This is offensive to the vast majority of travellers who don’t behave in an anti-social way and set up their camps on sites that are designated for them – there has been a 41 per cent increase in such sites in the last decade.

The frustration of local people, who are just minding their own business, and seeking to live in their homes and neighbourhoods peacefully, is that too often when problems are reported to the police, they say they don’t have the powers to act.

The new bill will fix this, enabling the police to act. It will also stop the cat and mouse game whereby, after a costly and lengthy process to get a camp removed, it then reappears in the same place within days or weeks.

The homelessness charities write ‘whether intentionally or not, this Bill will lead to the criminalisation of people for being homeless’. This is at odds with reality. This is a Government that is committed to ending rough sleeping and one that, at the onset of the pandemic, worked in partnership with these charities to bring ‘everybody in’ from the streets and into accommodation.

The measures in the Bill are targeting unauthorised traveller camps, not the homeless, and will only apply to those who reside in a vehicle on private land and are causing significant damage, disruption or distress.

Someone sleeping in their car would not meet that threshold, and it is disappointing to see such charities suggest otherwise. Interestingly, they call for the entire Bill to be scrapped, despite the fact it includes a very wide range of positive measures to protect the public, reduce violence, and improve our justice system – most of which are not in their areas of expertise.

The measures in the Bill are a very targeted response to a very particular problem. They respect the right of travellers to reside in areas designated for them but protect the right of people to live peacefully in their homes. And they’re popular with my constituents who know what it’s like to have camps near their homes.

The charities in question have a proud record of working with the Government to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. They should focus on what they do best and not let themselves or their cause down by scaremongering.