Kent’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Matthew Scott, has backed Government plans to criminalise trespass.
The Home Office has launched a consultation on giving police new powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised caravan sites.
Mr Scott believes these changes would make it easier for swift and robust action to be taken.
He said: “I travel all over Kent speaking to residents and I know all too well the deep frustrations our local communities have with existing legislation. Giving local police officers the power to arrest trespassers and seize their property and vehicles would, in my view, better protect our communities.”
Amendments to law
Currently such trespassing is defined in law as a civil matter. But the Home Office is consulting on making it a criminal offence.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “Unauthorised encampments can cause misery to those who live nearby, with reports of damage to property, noise, abuse and littering.
“The public want their communities protected and for the police to crack down on trespassers. Our proposals aim to ensure these encampments can be challenged and removed as quickly as possible.”
The Home Office is proposing to broaden the categories of criminal trespass to cover trespassers who enter onto any land without permission of the occupier with the intention to reside.
The proposed amendments to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 include: lowering the number of vehicles needed to be involved in an unauthorised camp before police can act from 6 to 2; giving the police powers to direct offenders to sites in neighbouring local authorities. Currently they can only direct trespassers to sites in the same area; allowing officers to remove trespassers from camping on or beside a road and increasing the time – from 3 months to a year – during which offenders are not allowed to return to a site they have already been removed from.
The Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) says it has made nearly £2 million available to councils to crack down on illegal developments, with funding also available under the £9 billion Affordable Homes Programme to help develop authorised sites.
Thanet has experienced a growing number of unauthorised camps over the past three years. In 2013 just two incidences were reported but last year there were more than 50 and that number has been repeated this year.
A proposal is being made by land owners Blinkbox, which has directors in Canterbury and Ramsgate, and Joseph Jones of the Gypsy Council for a permanent site to be created at land by Minster Services,.
Mr Jones (pictured), 67, says the aim is for the site to accommodate between nine and 15 vans, through three permanent and seven transient pitches, with associated facilities. The arrangement will be to take a 99 year lease on the land. It is expected a decision on the planning application will be made in December.
He said: ““What we are proposing will not cost the taxpayer a penny. We have people in housing who do not want to be in housing and since 1968 Thanet has not provided a site.”
Speaking out about the Government consultation, a Friends Families and Travellers spokesperson said: “We completely oppose the Home Office announcement of a consultation on criminalising trespass. It is clear that the proposals would have a devastating impact on Gypsy and Traveller communities, who have been part of British life since before the 16th century, yet face some of the greatest inequalities of any group in England and Wales.
“The Home Secretary’s assertions that unauthorised encampments “cause misery to those who live nearby, with reports of damage to property, noise, abuse and littering” focus on the behaviour of a minority, yet tar all Gypsies and Travellers with the same brush.
“This is dangerous and discriminatory rhetoric. If property damage, noise, abuse and littering truly are the Home Office’s concerns, we know that there already exists reams of criminal law to prevent and punish this.
“It is no coincidence that this announcement comes in the wake of a general election. If there was a real appetite to address the issue of unauthorised encampments, the government would have invested in site provision. Yet, for over a decade we have seen little to no progress in this area. Criminalising families who have no place to go is inhumane and wrong.”