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15 Jan 2002 : Column 62WH

Law of Trespass

1.26 pm

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Any reasonable person watching news unfold during the Christmas recess will have been truly shocked at two cases in which farmers had their barns invaded by so-called "revellers" and very little action was taken. It might be recalled that, in the Lincolnshire case, the farmer said that he felt more like a farmer in Zimbabwe than in part of the United Kingdom. In the Essex case, outrageously, when the farmer cut off the electricity to the barn, he was arrested by the police and held in his local police station until 5 o'clock in the morning. My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) is taking that matter up with both the police and Ministers at present.

It might be hoped that those incidents were unusual and isolated, but I regret to report that that is not the case. I want to illustrate what has happened twice in my constituency during the last six months. With your indulgence, Mr. Winterton, I shall read some correspondence that illuminates a serious problem.

The first invasion took place on town council playing fields in Bracknell. I shall read from the experienced and well-regarded town clerk Barbara Rumbold's letter to our chief constable, Sir Charles Pollard, dated 27 July. She says:

I would add that I spoke to several local residents who contacted me in fear of their property and safety. Mrs. Rumbold goes on to say:

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I, too, made representations to the chief constable, as I was shocked and appalled at these events. The reply from his superintendent of specialist operations, Stephen Evans, beggars belief. On 16 August, he wrote to me to say:

in this particular case. He continued:

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That is hardly reassuring to my constituents.

Stephen Evans then makes the following outrageous statement:

The Minister will not be surprised to learn that my constituents, the town clerk and others were deeply angered by that totally inadequate response.

Just one month ago, a further incident occurred on public property that also cost council tax payers a lot of money. In his letter to me of 14 December, Mr. Bob Lewin, the highly respected principal and chief executive of Bracknell and Wokingham college of further education, said:

He proceeded to outline the following concerns:

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I shall quote in part from the report to which he refers, from the site manager Stan Wears. He says:

that is the police inspector—

Priestwood is the neighbouring council estate to the car park—

Naturally, I again made representations to the police. This time, I had a reply from the assistant chief constable, territorial policing, Mr. Steve Love, who said:

It is the same story again.

Not surprisingly, the excellent Mr. Bob Lewin, principal of the college, was not impressed with the deputy chief constable's inadequate response. In a letter that I received today, he says:

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The cost to the college of further education, which is already hard pressed, is huge. The cost to council tax payers, where there are natural budgetary restraints, is great. Ordinary, innocent people—hard-working, normal, straightforward people who live around Bracknell—want to get on with their lives in peace, but they want protection under the law when they are invaded by this scum. They are scum, and I use the word advisedly. People who do what these people have done do not deserve the same human rights as my decent constituents going about their everyday lives. Either the police are not doing a proper job, in which case I hope that the Minister and the Home Secretary will issue directives to police constables to take appropriate action, or Parliament in general and the Government in particular have inadequate legislation.

I return to Assistant Chief Constable Steve Love's letter of 3 January, in which he states:

I should be interested in the Minister's comments on these suggestions—

His second point is that he needs

Thirdly—I appreciate that this goes beyond the Minister's remit, but I sympathise with the point—he says that he needs

I am not convinced as to who is in the wrong, but I know that my innocent constituents, the residents of Bracknell, are in the right. I initiated this afternoon's debate to establish how they can be properly protected. It must either be for the police to carry out their duties properly, directed by the Home Secretary, or for us as a Parliament, and for the Minister representing the Government, to strengthen the law so that the police can carry out their duties. We cannot have a situation in which ordinary decent people's lives are made a misery, they are under threat, their environment, their homes and their family's lives are ruined for a time and where the cost to individuals, taxpayers and hard-pressed organisations such as Bracknell and Wokingham college have to be met out of their own funds.

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I shall be fascinated to hear what the Minister has to say. I appreciate that most of this will be new to her, but as she does not have long to wind up I would also appreciate a more detailed written response from her or the Home Secretary, because it is vital that this matter is tackled once and for all.

1.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle) : I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) for raising the issue of trespass with particular reference to the difficulties caused by unauthorised camping. Unauthorised camping is a serious matter, and in many areas it is a challenge to balance the problems that the right hon. Gentleman has graphically described.

It would be a good idea if I began by confirming that travellers are part of our society, and they should be accorded the same rights and dignities as others: they have equal human rights to the settled community. However, human rights also extend to the settled community, and travellers' behaviour and the expectations of that behaviour should therefore be the same for those in the travelling community and the settled community. Anyone who thinks that that is not the case is profoundly wrong. The minority status of travellers and gypsies should not allow them to indulge in crime or antisocial behaviour; nor should it excuse that behaviour. The law should be enforced equally on them.

The right hon. Gentleman might be interested in a recent case in the High Court in which section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994—the part that encompasses police powers—was challenged and found not incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. I hope that that is another reassurance that he will take away with him. Each operation by the police is subject to challenge on the same grounds, so the police must bear the Human Rights Act in mind. However, within the context of what I have just said—that all people's rights are equal in our society—if people behave in an antisocial or criminal way, or in some of the ways that the right hon. Gentleman outlined, the full force of the law can and should be brought to bear.

A variety of legislation is in place to tackle the issue of unauthorised camping. Section 61 of the 1994 Act allows a

of an unauthorised camp to direct people to leave if he or she

and reasonable attempts by the landowner to get them to move have been unsuccessful. There must also have been some

and the right hon. Gentleman clearly outlined some of that. The travellers must have been "abusive" or "threatening" towards the landowner or agent trying to get them to move, or have brought "six or more vehicles" on to the land.

Once those conditions are fulfilled, a direction can be given to the travellers to leave the land and remove their property from it. When evicted from a place under

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section 61 of the 1994 Act, travellers cannot return to that place within three months. If given a direction to leave, the refusal to do so carries the power of arrest.

That is a discretionary power, and I suspect that that is the nub of the matter. How that power is used operationally is a matter for the chief constable and the local police commander. The legislation does not refer to land forming part of a highway—–another loophole, which the right hon. Gentleman did not mention, but which has become obvious to people trying to use the powers.

If the police have any knowledge of any large-scale incursion into an area, they can apply to a district council for an order prohibiting trespassory assemblies for a specified period, under section 14A of the Public Order Act 1986. Once such an application is received, the council may with the Home Secretary's consent make an order banning such assemblies. It is then an offence to assemble in breach of that order. The offence also carries a power of arrest. The police may direct people away from travelling towards such a gathering if an order is in place. That is a more preventive power that exists under current legislation.

Local authorities also have powers, under section 77 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, that enable them to direct any unauthorised campers to leave land where they are camped without consent. It is an offence not to leave as soon as is reasonably practical thereafter.

We have noticed in the operation of the 1994 Act that there is not always sufficient co-ordination between local police and local authorities over whether section 61 or section 77 is appropriate. The legislation works best where there is a proactive association and on-going co-operation between the local authority and police to try to deal with those issues and decide which of the two sections should be used. In the worst examples, the local authority expects the police to use section 61 and the police want the local authority to use section 77, so not a lot of progress is made.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the good practice guidance, "Managing Unauthorised Camping", which featured in the letter from the chief constable that he read. It suggests more proactive co-operation between local agencies, not just the enforcing agencies, to ensure an appropriate response when incursions occur and cause nuisance, criminal damage and other serious disruption. Magistrates courts have powers under section 77 of the 1994 Act to order eviction, so there must also be a good and co-operative relationship with the courts to enable fast action to be taken. Part of the key to dealing with the matter appropriately and quickly when an encampment is causing problems is to persuade those organisations to work together instead of one expecting the other to take action. The good practice guide suggests that.

A landowner may take certain measures for the recovery of land under the civil procedures rule. Sections 1 to 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and common law give the police powers to deal with a variety of other antisocial behaviour, such as public nuisance and breach of the peace. Again, creative and proactive action has often been proved to work when an unauthorised encampment exhibits such behaviour.

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The legislation is discretionary and it is not for me as the Minister to interfere in operational decisions by the police and local authorities. However, the Government have made it clear—not least in asking the Association of Chief Police Officers to revise its guidelines on how to work with the legislation—that police powers can be used at an early stage if necessary. If the right hon. Gentleman looks at the way in which the legislation is framed, he will see that it allows early intervention to prevent large-scale incursion, especially if there is evidence that it is being organised.

I suggest gently that the legislation could be used more proactively and imaginatively than in the past to have a preventive effect. I am happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman about the detailed points, particularly on strengthening the law, but I am not giving a commitment that it will be the Home Office's top priority and he would not expect me to do so.

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New work is being done between the Home Office and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to update the guide in the light of experience. Human Rights Act concerns exist, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that if people are treated equally and have their human rights accorded to them, the police are not powerless to take action when criminal damage is done, there is breach of the peace and other laws are broken. I expect that to be taken into account appropriately by local forces. Laws exist that allow a proactive and sometimes preventive approach to the issue, but experience shows that they are more likely to be successful if there is open co-operation between local agencies that allows the law to be used to its maximum effect.

Question put and agreed to.

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