[Relevant documents: Written evidence to the Petitions Committee, on public engagement on e-petitions, reported to the House on 26 January, HC 546.]
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 300139, relating to trespass.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I have demonstrated that not all talents are distributed equally, as I have managed to pour water all over my speaking notes. If there is any disintegration of these words, I beg your forgiveness.
This debate is about how we access the countryside, how much we value it and what laws should govern that access. The petition proposes changes to legislation currently going through Parliament. In short, it asks that we do not criminalise trespass. Before its closure in September last year, the petition had been signed by 134,932 people, 185 of whom are from my own fabulous patch of South Ribble.
In seeking to represent fairly the different sides of this complex debate, I met a number of individuals and organisations to hear their views. I am particularly grateful for their time and expert insight. My sincere thanks go to the petition’s originator, Guy Shrubsole; Gemma Cantelo, representing the views of the Ramblers; Abbey Kirkby, for sharing her thoughts from the Traveller community; as well as George Dunn, from the Tenant Farmers Association; Sam Durham, from the National Farmers Union; and Andrew Gillett, from the Country Land and Business Association.
With those thanks over, let me take a step into the detail of this debate. My right hon. Friend the Minister has stated that the Government
“made a clear manifesto commitment to act on the issue of unauthorised encampments and…remain determined to ensure police have the powers they need.”
As a result, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill introduces intentional trespass as a criminal offence. The “Don’t criminalise trespass” petition was set up by Guy as he has a series of concerns about unintended consequences for countryside lovers and those who seek to reside in it. In his view, criminalising intentional trespass could lead to, although not exclusively: prosecuting ramblers who stray from the path by accident—I am sure that is something that the Minister, the Chair and all of us in this room have done, although I confess that I am normally in possession of a mountain bike and a rucksack when issuing unfettered apologies for being in the wrong part of the countryside—preventing participation in wild camping, even for personal safety or enjoyment; limiting the right to peaceful protest; and forging new paths in the countryside. Guy is also keen to highlight the wider implications of criminalising intentional trespass on the lives of Traveller communities across the country.
Through an online survey, the Petitions Committee sought the opinions of affected groups and forums. A remarkable 84% of respondents felt that criminalisation of intentional trespass would have major or moderate effects on how they live their lives. Further conversations with representatives of the Ramblers regarding access and right of way suggest that they share similar concerns about the criminalisation of those who have become lost or strayed from the footpath. They argue that the likelihood of becoming lost with unkempt footpaths and limited signage—and, in my case, a lack of capability —inhibits visitors from venturing out and exploring our beautiful countryside. Discouraging rambling should not be a consequence of the legislation, and nor should be it threatened.
Respondents to the Petitions Committee survey also suggested that urban dwellers—I was most definitely one in my youth—include higher levels of minorities and the economically disadvantaged, who already have less access to outdoor spaces in England. They could be disproportionately affected through either the reality or the perception that they will be criminalised for accessing the countryside, and the petitioners feel extremely strongly that this should not be the case.
There were concerns that the proposed changes in the law would add further barriers to outdoor access. I am proud that we are a country with 140,000 miles of public rights of way, mainly founded through public footpaths and bridleways. Such routes to access to the countryside, nature and wildlife are here to stay, and they are extremely important as an outlet for our educational, mental and physical needs. Like the petitioners, I use them regularly on my bike and on foot, and I would be deeply concerned if new legislation were to deter others from enjoying the beauty of England—north or south.
Many robust concerns were raised about the unintended consequences of the legislation. Crucially, such opinions were mirrored in the conversations that I have had with rambler groups, farmers and landowners. During those discussions, it became clear that at the heart of the debate is a key phrase: “to intentionally reside”. It many cases, a lost walker has no intent to reside unlawfully on a farmer’s field. When discussing this further, Guy’s experience of wild camping in Dartmoor is a potential model. Stays there are restricted to a maximum of two nights, which prevents a camper from establishing intent to reside, and arguably they are at no risk of committing trespass by that account.
The legislation that sparked the petition is aimed at tackling illegal encampments, where visitors occupy land and do not leave when asked. In representing the petitioners, I felt it appropriate to speak to those whom the legislation seeks to support. Within my constituency of South Ribble, there have been a series of trespass issues for landowners. As trespass is currently a civil offence, returning access to landowners’ property can be a lengthy process with temporary results. According to my local landowners who have reported back to me, the current reprimands for trespass do not equal the financial and environmental cost. Despite the focus on unauthorised encampments, petitioners are concerned that under the proposed changes to the law, there is a real possibility that the legislation will be manipulated to criminalise participants in wild camping, mountain biking and rambling who get lost. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what he can do to assuage the extremely valid concerns.
Representatives of the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and the Tenant Farmers Association were keen to highlight that farmers and landowners are delighted to share the countryside with others, as long as visitors are respectful. That means steering clear of livestock and crop production, and adhering to the countryside code. However, they were keen to speak to the points in the petition. In their view, instances of trespass with residency have become a larger problem, with the use of intimidation, violence and environmental destruction being reported to them. They felt that current legislation is not a useful tool to prevent such issues. In order to best prevent and discourage intentional and destructive trespass, it seems logical to them to make it a criminal offence.
I discussed these points with Abbie from Friends, Families and Travellers during a really brilliant conversation. She expressed the importance of not associating certain behaviours with all members of the Traveller community. Given the authorised Traveller sites in South Ribble, I must wholeheartedly agree with her. She recognised a persistent problem with unlawful encampments, but she has huge concerns that further legislation compounds the inequalities experienced by the Traveller community. The Bill strengthens police powers, including the ability to seize a vehicle, for example. For those in the Traveller community, that could mean the seizure of their home and possessions. The number of lawful sites in which the Traveller community can reside is limited, so Abbie and the petitioners argue strongly that improved site provision, not further legislation, is key to preventing issues. On behalf of the Traveller community, she says quite clearly: “Don’t criminalise trespass.”
Owing to the delay caused by covid, since the petition’s inception and our meetings, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—the subject of the petition—received its Second Reading in the House of Commons on 16 March. The Bill contains provisions on unauthorised encampments, including the creation of an offence
“relating to residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle”.
My understanding is that that phrasing is intended in part to address the concerns raised by the petitioners. The new offence has been phrased in such a way as to ensure that the right of ramblers and others to enjoy the countryside is not affected. Despite that, under the definition provided, a bicycle could constitute a vehicle, which could put me and my haphazard mountain biking at risk. The inclusion of bicycles in the definition has been highlighted as a concern of many of those who have signed the petition. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to those points.
The petitioners are worried about the introduction of a barrier to their access to the wonderful British countryside, and about the idea that it would put others off accessing our bridleways and footpaths for recreation and enjoyment, good mental health, and engagement with nature—all those amazing things. Although farmers and landowners are experiencing difficulty with unlawful encampments, with which they believe the current statute cannot assist, they are mindful of the unintended consequences of legislation.
The Traveller community have concerns about their way of life, and about being judged by the actions of a minority, which is a concern shared by the petitioners. I repeat my grateful thanks to all those who signed the petition, and to those who took the time to meet me in the run-up to the debate. I look forward to hearing colleagues’ responses on this difficult and nuanced subject. The petition says, “Don’t criminalise trespass”, but is that the same as residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle?
It is a pleasure to be before you in Westminster Hall, Mr Bone. I thank the Petitions Committee for facilitating the debate, which has come slightly later than we envisaged—it was due to take place in January. If anything, it is now more relevant, as the hon. Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) said.
We have had Second Reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and we heard the arguments put forward then. I must compliment the hon. Lady on putting forward a balanced argument, but in her effort to do that, what shone through was how strong the arguments are on the side against this wholly unnecessary provision, which is being included in the Bill for reasons on which I will speculate in a moment.
There is no reason for the provision. If the petition had not been closed, as they are after six months, I am sure that we would by now have had many more than the 135,000 signatures. Lots of groups are threatened by the criminalisation of trespass: ramblers, who have been mentioned; off-road cyclists; canoeists; wild campers; those who are forced to live in a vehicle because of homelessness or other circumstances; and those who care about and want access to the countryside.
In their response to the consultation on the Bill, the Government have implied that many of those groups are not the target. Two questions spring from that. First, the Government have not persuaded anyone. As the Ramblers said in the briefing for this debate, the legislation is vaguely drafted and many of the proposals are unclear in both scope and reach, which risks criminalising activities such as wild camping when accessed by a motor vehicle or bicycle, as well as the legitimate right to protest. The Bill would allow the police to take action on an officer’s suspicion that someone might intend to reside. It would give the minority of landowners who might wish to make the countryside a hostile place for those seeking to enjoy it for recreation a powerful new tool to deter users. The potential for abuse of the legislation is obvious and significant. The Bill would send a signal that the countryside is not an open resource that is accessible to all, but a place of complex rules and regulations, with criminal sanctions for breaching them.
If the Government did succeed in so limiting the Bill by a further amendment in Committee or at a later stage, the issue of who is primarily the target would become clearer: Gypsy and Traveller communities, and those who adopt a nomadic lifestyle through choice or necessity. I say this regretfully: I can only reach the conclusion that it is a rather nasty racist little attempt to attack minority ethnic communities already suffering severe discrimination, and other socially marginalised groups. I will repeat something I said when speaking about the Bill on Second Reading, that
“no family willingly stops somewhere they are not welcome, and which has no running water, waste disposal or electricity”—[Official Report, 15 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 88.]—
and where they will be harassed.
The reason for unauthorised encampments is the lack of authorised sites, be they permanent or transit sites. The number of permanent or transit sites on aggregate has gone down over the past ten years by several hundred, and by over 8% in total. Gypsies and Travellers are among the most marginalised and discriminated against groups in the country. Their outcomes in health, education and life expectancy are the worst of any ethnic minority group, and proper provision is simply not made. There are 354 transit pitches across the whole of England, and only 29 local authorities provide them. If there is nowhere to go that is of an authorised nature, then what alternative is there but to use unauthorised sites? There are 1,696 households on the waiting list for pitches, with only 59 vacant pitches on permanent sites and 42 on transit sites.
In responding to the petition, the Government said:
“The law of trespass is largely one of common law, with the courts developing the law and resolving disputes based on the circumstances of the case. However, following the ‘Powers for Dealing with Unauthorised Development and Encampments’ consultation in 2018, it was clear”—
clearly it was not clear, because most people opposed the provision responding to that consultation—
“that action is needed to address the sense of unease and intimidation residents feel when an unauthorised encampment occurs.”
That is an insidious piece of text. First, it is good that the control of trespass is brought up by the common law over the centuries. Secondly, there is plenty of legislation on the matter, notably the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. That legislation was seen as draconian at the time, and this goes much further. Over the past two decades, law enforcement and nomadic communities have tried to make the current law work by guidance, negotiation and compromise. The police Bill strips away all of that experience and sets up confrontation, arbitrary use of power, and the threat of arrest, imprisonment, loss of home and perhaps of families. For what purpose? So that the Home Secretary can indulge in a bit of dog-whistle politics.
If people think I am exaggerating, I chaired a seminar earlier today, organised by the all-party parliamentary group on Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, to hear the real-life experiences of Gypsies and Travellers, and to hear from their advocates in the Friends, Families and Travellers movement who were loyally supporting those communities. They all do an excellent job. We heard stories of Traveller families who had booked official caravan sites, only to be turned away on arrival. The racism of Pontins in refusing access on the grounds of ethnicity is far from rare.
Without access to legal sites, where are families supposed to go? Under the current law, there was at least a chance of negotiating an organised departure, and the discretion lies with the police whose guidance says that only where there is “damage”, “abusive behaviour” or multiple vehicles should precipitous action be taken. Under the new law, we apparently need to address the sense of “unease” that local residents might feel, an “intention to reside” or the likelihood of causing “damage, disruption or distress”.
Has there ever been a law so disingenuously or vaguely worded? It is clear why, because in their frequently answered questions, the Government give the explanation that “strengthened police powers” and the new offences
“could also deter unauthorised encampments from being set up in the first instance.”
This is designed to frighten people into taking no action at all. It is designed to attack the principles of nomadic life, which the Government have already attacked by changing the definition of what Gypsies and Travellers means.
If the legislation is passed unamended, it will have a rough ride in the courts. It is already clear that it violates important principles of the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act 2010. No one with any sense supports this unnecessary and vindictive provision—certainly not the police. Only 21% of police organisations responded positively to the proposals and the consultation, while 94% called for more site provision.
I know that other Members are waiting to speak and that I have taken my allotted time. I simply say to the Minister that this is the time to consider what changes will be made to the detail of the Bill. Part 4 adds nothing useful to the current law. It will do huge damage to relations between settled communities and Gypsies and Travellers. It will put the police in an extremely difficult position. It will suck in whole groups of other people who, whether this is the intention or not, are also severely worried about the consequences. Let us have a sensible and mature rethink and let us drop these invidious proposals now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. As we consider the important matter of illegal encampments and unauthorised access to land, may I commend my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) for her eloquent and balanced introduction to the debate? It is important that I be clear from the outset that I and my constituents strongly support the introduction of tougher measures to protect land and property from trespass, whether it belongs to private individuals or the taxpayer in the form of central Government or local authorities.
I pay tribute to the work of Councillor John Warmisham, the Labour leader of the UK delegation at the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in the Council of Europe, who has led work for many years at an international level to improve the way in which human rights law, as administered by local authorities and regional governments, treats Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. His work has been very important in informing my thinking on the subject and my approach to the petition today.
There seems to be no evidence that the proposed strengthened measures would deter anyone from lawful access to private land. Ramblers, walkers and riders do not see their legitimate and time-honoured access restricted by what the Government propose. It is very clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble said, that powers to prosecute are triggered only in circumstances where someone is present where they have no right to be, and when they refuse to leave when asked.
In my constituency, on the edge of London, we have many popular walking and rambling paths, mountain bike routes and bridleways. The users of these amenities, many of which are maintained by private landowners as part of the good husbandry of their holdings, should have no fear that they will be negatively impacted. It is also clear that the law in Scotland might offer a model to consider, and I know that the Government have been consulting on that. Trespass is a criminal offence, but legitimate use of the property is included. Other Members may disagree with that, but that is the legal interpretation that I saw in the briefing note. I look forward to being enlightened.
Many communities have suffered significant blight from unauthorised encampments for too long. I live opposite a green space owned and maintained by the London Borough of Hillingdon, and it was the subject of one such incursion. Like many people across the country, other residents and I were treated to the sight of people defecating publicly opposite our homes, with rubbish strewn around and extensive vandalism. Normal activities such as children’s football, outdoor exercise and dog walking all had to stop while the legal process was followed.
Once that notice was served, I watched alongside those other residents as campers gathered all the glass that they had accumulated during their stay, smashing it to fragments and scattering it across the whole area, to maximise the harm and inconvenience that their illegal incursion caused the community. When they finally departed, they left a massive clean-up job and, for that season, a bill in excess of £300,000 for council tax payers to meet. I speak from personal experience when I say that the measures are long overdue.
Some will argue that legitimate lifestyles are at risk of being criminalised. I wholly disagree. Not one moment of what I witnessed was legitimate. Both the settled and the temporary residents of local caravan sites, which are made available for public use, would agree, because they pay council tax to clear up that kind of mess, too. Breaking into other people’s property, causing misery and stress at a massive cost is simply unacceptable. It is not a lifestyle; it is straightforward criminality, and it must be robustly dealt with when it occurs.
Clearly, there is a balance to be struck. At the moment, the balance weighs too heavily against the landowner and the taxpayer, and in favour of the small minority of criminals who choose to exploit the fact. It is absolutely right that the Government take heed of the concerns of communities across London and the rest of the country, and enact the measures.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Bone. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate.
I would like to begin by paying tribute to the more than 134,000 people, including 149 of my constituents, who signed the petition “Don’t criminalise trespass”. The petition set out that the Government’s manifesto stated that the Conservative party
“will make intentional trespass a criminal offence”.
It pointed out that it is
“an extreme, illiberal & unnecessary attack on ancient freedoms that would threaten walkers, campers, and the wider public.”
It expressed concern that that would, among other things,
“Criminalise ramblers who stray even slightly from the path …Criminalise wild camping, denying hikers a night under the stars”.
The petition shows great strength of feeling on this issue, which is part of our great tradition in this country of securing access to the countryside through protest. We have an incredibly important tradition of accessing the great outdoors, and are richly blessed with the diversity of landscapes that we can enjoy. That tradition is in activities such as walking, cycling, kayaking and mountaineering; it is in the activities of brownies, girl guides, cubs and scouts, and it is in our culture through the poetry of Wordsworth and the paintings of Turner, to name just two of the many artists and writers who have found inspiration in the power and grandeur of the natural world.
We have wonderful national parks, such as Snowdonia, the Lake District and the Peak District. The last one became the first national park in the UK almost exactly 70 years ago, on 17 April 1951. Our national parks give us access to breath-taking coastal scenery, such as that in Pembrokeshire, the south downs and the North York Moors. In my constituency, there is Caldy Hill, Thurstaston Common, Irby Hill and Harrock Wood, all owned and cared for by the National Trust, which does such an important job preserving such areas for the benefit of local people and visitors.
When we reflect on all that we have to enjoy, it is important to consider the invaluable work of individual conservationists, campaigners and protest groups that have delivered such riches to us, and have ensured that we can access those beautiful places. I am thinking of people such as Beatrix Potter, who bought large tracts of land in Cumbria specifically to preserve the landscape, and who left 4,000 acres of countryside to the National Trust, as well as 14 farms, when she died in 1943. Millions of people enjoy that countryside, in what we know as the Lake District national park.
Hundreds of ramblers from Manchester and elsewhere took part in the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932. Knowing our history is important: the mass trespass is widely credited with leading the Labour Attlee Government to pass legislation in 1949 to establish the national parks, playing a part of the development the Pennine Way and many other long-distance footpaths, and securing walkers’ rights over open country and common land in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. In 2007, Lord Hattersley described it as
“the most successful direct action in British history.”
In January this year, a number of organisations—including the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Friends of the Earth and the Ramblers Association—wrote to the Home Secretary, arguing that making trespass a criminal offence is
“an extreme, illiberal and unnecessary attack on ancient freedoms.”
They warned that
“It would send a signal that the countryside is not an open resource accessible to all, but a place of complex rules and regulations, where stepping off a public path could lead to a criminal sentence.”
Recently, the Government published their Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and Labour opposed it on Second Reading. The proposals in part 4 of the Bill, on unauthorised encampments, create a new offence of
“residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle”.
However, more than 250 civil society groups are still concerned that the Bill threatens our right of access to the countryside, as they made clear in their letter to the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Justice last month. Liberty has pointed out that the provisions of the Bill will
“impact access to the countryside and affect the enjoyment of British land for recreational activities.”
Can the Minister tell us how the Bill is consistent with the Government’s commitment to
“opening up the natural world”,
as they stated in their 25-year environmental plan? The countryside should always be accessible to everyone and it is incredibly important that we follow in the tradition of those who have gone before us to secure rights of access.
The petition that is the subject of today’s debate also raises important concerns that legislation making intentional trespass a criminal offence could impact on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and I have to say that I was very shocked by the comments of the previous speaker. The Bill includes a new criminal offence of trespass with the intent to reside; until now, trespass has been a civil offence. The National Police Chiefs Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners have stated quite clearly that
“trespass is a civil offence and our view is that it should remain so”
“no new criminal trespass offence is required”.
Why have the Government ignored that viewpoint?
The charity Friends, Families and Travellers has warned that making trespass a criminal offence would push Gypsies and Travellers into the criminal justice system merely for existing nomadically. It has pointed to an absence of places where Gypsies and Travellers are permitted to stop or reside. One of my constituents wrote to me to say that she is
“from one of the many Gypsy, Traveller and nomadic communities who will be directly and harmfully affected by the criminalisation of trespass put forward in the Bill.”
She said that
“We need more sites and stopping places where Gypsies and Travellers are allowed to be. Nobody should be made a criminal or punished for living a nomadic way of life.”
What is the Minister’s response to my constituent? What would he say to her about how this Government are treating Gypsy, Traveller and other nomadic communities?
The petition also raises concerns about the Government’s proposals to
“clamp down on peaceful protest, a fundamental right and essential part of our democracy”.
Numerous organisations have drawn attention to how the Bill threatens the right to peaceful protest. Three years ago this month, many of us gathered to see the unveiling of the first statue of a woman in Parliament Square, which was of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett. She holds a banner that reads, “Courage calls to courage everywhere”. That unveiling was an historic moment for us democratically.
Protests and demonstrations have forged positive change in our country over generations, whether they were the actions of the suffragettes tackling the grotesque injustice of women not even having the right to vote, or, more recently, the actions of anti-fracking protesters who set up camp at places such as Preston New Road in Lancashire. The actions of those campaigners helped to achieve a moratorium on fracking, and now the Government say that fracking is over in the UK.
The numerous demonstrations for employment rights that have been spearheaded by the trade union movement have been crucial in furthering the rights of working people, and the protests of people up and down the country against the Conservative Government’s plans to privatise the national health service continue, showing the passion with which people believe in a national health service that is paid for through direct taxation and free to all at the point of need.
Without people being able to gather and show their opposition to issues of social injustice and attacks on the environment, the Government would feel as though they could do whatever they pleased. No Government should ever be given that opportunity. It is as important now as it has ever been to make it clear that we demand the right to protest. Any attempt to curtail that right strikes at the heart of our democracy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and to contribute to this important debate. It is also a pleasure to highlight the 600 signatures from Hornsey and Wood Green on the petition—clearly my constituents are concerned about their ability to go about in and enjoy the great outdoors.
We are blessed with parks and walks in Hornsey and Wood Green, but none as lovely as being outside London and enjoying a quiet walk. During the pandemic the desire to be outdoors has been heightened because of the impact of the loneliness of coronavirus on mental health. It has been lovely for our friends and families to walk in and explore the countryside. I hope that the Government will have a rethink on the matter, and I note a number of campaigns and newspaper articles calling for that. The Ramblers Association, which is a well established group, is one of those calling for a rethink so that we can fully enjoy the outdoors—particularly in the summer months as we go towards another year, possibly, of holidays at home—without the fear of being told we are trespassing.
The proposals risk putting a stop to some of the walks that we enjoy so much, with landowners closing off swathes of remote countryside. Furthermore, some local authorities do not look after paths and maintain tracks; the measures will be a disincentive to them when it comes to doing that and showing signage. The enjoyment of a walk can be slightly spoiled by getting lost, which can lead to trespass, and that can happen if local authorities do not look after paths well. I hope that the Minister, who, of course, has a background in local government, will take note and perhaps send round a little note to local government leaders asking for paths to be looked after, so that there is not a risk of trespass and so that people can walk with proper signage, and enjoy their ramble.
I emphasise that there are some naturalists who desire to carry out wildlife surveys. Some scientists have warned that the measure we are debating could prevent some of the basic science through which we get our love of science and nature. It cannot be stressed enough how vital it is for people to have access to nature and the open countryside.
Sales of camping equipment have soared, which is great for the economy. British Canoeing has had a 40% jump in membership and our national parks have had huge numbers of visitors. I am not sure whether the Government have yet got round to implementing Labour’s suggestion, from the last manifesto, of bringing in some more national parks; but certainly the experience of camping and visiting a national park should not be underestimated.
I want to highlight concerns about some of the debate on Second Reading. It was disheartening when Member after Member stood up to criticise, in demeaning terms, the Gypsy and Traveller community going about their travelling, and some of the challenges that that community faces. Statistics show us that the Gypsy and Traveller community is probably the one most discriminated against in Europe. It was dispiriting to hear, in this wonderful Parliament, Member after Member having a go at that community on Second Reading. That is not what the House of Commons should be about.
The police have made it clear that they believe that the powers they have are sufficient—75% of police responses to the proposals show that they believe that. Additionally, 84% did not support the criminalisation of unauthorised encampments, and 65% said that lack of site provision was the real problem. In my view, some of the problem with policing is the closure of 50% of police stations since 2010 and the drop in the number of police. Hundreds of police have been taken off the street since 2010 and that is the real problem with much of policing. In particular, some schools say that they miss the friendly bobby on the beat who drops in. A lot of that policing in schools has disappeared from the budget, and that is a real pity. That is the sort of issue that we want to get down to—not high-level mudslinging at minority communities.
I urge the Government to pull back from what is a dangerous, illiberal and unnecessary step. If they really want to protect landowners, Ministers should heed the calls from the police and campaigners to provide access to well-maintained walking paths and sites for Travellers, rather than continuing down this thinly veiled attack on rights and livelihoods, which will deny so many the chance to explore our beautiful countryside.
I am glad to speak in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Bone. This debate is important and timely as we await the Committee stage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The proposals around the criminalisation of trespass are deeply concerning, and I want to focus today on an area of them. There is real concern that these proposals will have the effect of deterring people from accessing the countryside for recreation.
We have seen during the pandemic that access to green space and the countryside is central to promoting people’s physical and mental wellbeing, but access to green space has too often been the preserve of a small number of more privileged groups. Over the past year, we have begun to see a broadening of access as more people seek out green spaces and visit the countryside. It is vital that this is promoted, rather than suppressed. I am concerned that the provisions in the Bill could deter people who seek to access green spaces for entirely legitimate reasons.
Key to the issue is the provision that allows people to be stopped by the police if they are suspected of intending to reside on land without consent. This power is so broadly defined that it could cover people on wild cycling trips who intend to camp on open land such as moors or hillsides. It would give the small number of landowners determined to discourage public access to the countryside a powerful tool to make it a hostile place.
The potential for abuse of this legislation is obvious. The impact of this measure on trespass would be to create an image of the countryside as a place governed by complex rules and regulations, with criminal sanctions for breaching them. This will particularly deter people who already have more negative experiences of the criminal justice system, especially people from diverse communities who already face more structural barriers to accessing the countryside. The end effect of these proposals is likely to be fewer people accessing the countryside.
The Government have claimed that they want to do more to promote access to nature for everyone, but their actions say otherwise. From a delayed Environment Bill that makes no firm commitments on access to nature, to this retrograde proposal that could actively deter people from getting out into the countryside, we are seeing a Government that are putting up barriers, rather than breaking them down. If the Government choose to criminalise trespass, they would also be completely out of touch with the public mood. More people are visiting the countryside and green spaces due to covid-19. Visits to parks and green spaces have doubled in the past 10 years, and more people are taking part in outdoor activities.
Despite this, the number of people who spend little or no time in natural spaces is still too high. Evidence shows that access to good-quality green space such as parks, woodlands, fields and allotments varies greatly depending on where people live. The most economically deprived areas often have less available public green space, meaning that people in those communities have fewer opportunities to reap the benefits to their health and wellbeing. I join the Ramblers and other groups in urging the Government to reconsider and to drop these damaging proposals, so that people are free to enjoy the countryside without the threat of criminalisation hanging over them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Bone. It is with great sadness that I speak to the House on this subject again—it seems that when it comes to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, the Government never learn. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill contains many authoritarian measures, but none so pernicious as those aimed at GRT communities.
I was saddened to come across the most awful racism on Twitter this week in relation to the Channel 5 programme “Here Come the Gypsies!” It was sickening to read the way in which people were displaying their prejudices, many without any challenge, but of course there is a political context to this hatred. As we know, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill includes measures to
“Strengthen police powers to tackle unauthorised encampments, where trespassers cause distress and misery to local communities and businesses.”
Of course, as Members have mentioned, the criminalisation of trespass is a direct attack on the nomadic lifestyle of many Gypsies and Travellers. Police forces across the country have specifically asked not to be given these powers on trespass, as they realise that such powers attack the lifestyles of groups who are often voiceless and who do not have a choice over where to stop.
When the measures to criminalise trespass were consulted on by the Government, over 90% of police bodies said that the provision of additional legal sites for encampments, rather than additional criminal powers, should be the approach taken by the Government, so why are seeing this unthinking and vicious anti-Traveller legislation once again? It starts from a lack of education: politicians and legislators do not understand and, worse still, do not try to understand the problems faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities trying to balance their nomadic traditions with the need for services and the constant hostility wherever they settle. At the heart of this is a form of racism.
I know it has been said before, but there is a reason why anti-Gypsy, Roma and Traveller prejudice is called the last acceptable face of racism. It is because politicians do not stop and think before they paint whole communities as the problem, as perfectly demonstrated by the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) a few moments ago. Communities all over the country have issues with rubbish, antisocial behaviour and small-time criminality. Nobody should excuse such behaviour or pretend that it does not exist, but we have a racism problem whereby one section of our society is blamed and targeted relentlessly, and others are excused or ignored. The double standard of that targeting should be scrutinised, not fuelled, by this House.
We should be honest about what this is: a political attack on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. It is kicking a community that has very few self-defence mechanisms at its disposal. The key thing is that there are other solutions. Abbie Kirkby of Friends, Families and Travellers has said:
“The Government should not imprison people, fine them and remove their homes for the ‘crime’ of having nowhere to go. Another way is possible. Through negotiated stopping and by identifying land where Traveller sites can be built, councils can ensure nomadic families have a safe place to stop, save money on evictions and improve relations between travelling and settled communities.”
Giving all people dignity and respect is a fundamental duty for anyone who calls themselves an anti-racist or who understands the concept of human rights. It is easy to scapegoat a community—sometimes it is done unconsciously, but it is just as damaging—and all because we do not take the time to listen, understand and find solutions. Tony Benn once said:
“The way a Government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.”
The same could be said for the way in which our Government treat the Traveller community. That is our challenge: if we want to live in a decent, respectful and fair society, we should think about what that means in practice and look for the answers that are already out there in the provision of adequate sites, services and facilities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I speak not only as someone who supports the right to roam freely, but as a Sheffield MP standing in a long and proud tradition of Sheffielders who fought for the right to roam. Many constituents have contacted me about this issue, with 713 signing the petition and many others emailing me about today’s debate.
Our debate on the petition is well timed, although delayed. It takes place between two dates that are important to my city and my constituency, and which have significance for the whole country. The first date fell on Saturday 17 April, which marked the 70th anniversary of the Peak District national park, which was the first such park in the UK. The foundations of the park were built by my constituent Ethel Haythornthwaite, who was born in 1894. After falling in love with the beauty of the countryside surrounding our city, she founded the Sheffield Association for the Protection of Local Countryside, which would later become the Peak district and South Yorkshire branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Throughout her life, she directed a host of campaigns to defend the use by everyone of the green spaces in and around Sheffield.
The second important date is this Saturday, 24 April, which will be the 89th anniversary of the Kinder Scout mass trespass mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), one of many regular trespasses into moorland estates organised by workers from northern industrial towns and cities, such as the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers. Before the founding of the national parks, these workers were forced to trespass because moorland estates were privately owned by the landed gentry. Their demand was simple: that everyone should be able to access the moors. In 1945, their efforts were recognised when a Government were elected who shared the views not only of Ethel but of the Kinder trespassers as well. Ethel was actually appointed to the National Parks Committee and helped the new Government to deliver the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.
Ministers now propose to turn back the clock and make trespass a criminal offence. They attack not only the right to roam but the right of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community to live as they wish. If the Government were serious about addressing unauthorised encampments, they would increase funding for more legal sites and more places to legally stop, not pass new laws that attack an already persecuted community and force more people into our criminal justice system. We should look to extend our right to green spaces, not deter people from accessing our precious countryside, nor should we criminalise those whose culture is based around the right to roam.
As a Sheffield MP, I am proud to stand on the shoulders of Ethel Haythornthwaite, the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers and the Kinder Scout trespassers in demanding that everyone should enjoy, as Ethel put it, the “peace, freedom, solitude, excitement” that comes with the escape into the clean air and the gradual return to nature.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone. I hope that you and the Clerks are well in these difficult times. I thank those who brought forward the petition, and I am grateful to those Members who opened the debate, which I will now respond to on behalf of the Scottish National party. There will of course be those who ask why I am participating in the debate, given that the trespass in England and Wales comes under the remit of the UK Parliament. However, the debate also relates to the police Bill, which will have ramifications for Scots law.
May I first of all, if you will forgive me, Mr Bone, clarify some points on the law in Scotland? At this moment in time, trespass in both England and Scotland is a civil wrong but not a criminal act. I can say on behalf of my party that, if we are re-elected to government in May, we will certainly not bring forward any legislation at Holyrood to follow the police Bill, which seeks to criminalise trespass, at least from our perspective. I also highlight that it seemed as if some points made during the debate suggested that all members of the Gypsy and Traveller community, owing merely to their being members of those ancient and historic communities, commit criminal acts. My own window was smashed at the weekend, and I can tell hon. Members that it was certainly not by members of the Gypsy and Traveller community; it was clearly by somebody who probably had too much wine in the sun at the weekend during a global pandemic. I do not assume for one minute that it was a member of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community. These extraordinary statements are entrenched in a lot of the narratives and debates and discussions we have had over the last couple of months leading up to the police Bill and debates on it in Parliament. It has been quite horrific to hear some of the dreadful instances of racism and bigotry that our Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities face.
That is not to say that things are in any way perfect in Scotland, in terms of reflection, but there has been an opportunity to learn and to move forward. That is for all parties, I have to say, and not only in the Scottish Parliament; before the break-up of the last Session of the Holyrood Parliament, my colleagues in local government, through the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, co-signed Scotland’s national plan for the Gypsy and Traveller community. That was signed by my colleagues, the Minister the Minister for Older People and Equalities, Christina McKelvie, and Councillor Kelly Parry of COSLA. The aim has been to secure political support across all parties so that they work together to improve the lives of Scotland’s Gypsies and Travellers; and to formally recognise the right to travel.
There has been a commitment to finding ways to map and, where possible, reopen traditional and, as I often say, ancient stopping places across the nation of Scotland, used since at least the 12th century. The Scottish Government and COSLA, representing all parties, announced a shared commitment with Police Scotland to work together to challenge discrimination and promote equality for Gypsies and Travellers—people who have been economically, socially and politically excluded from our country. That has been brought forward with a package of investment—up to £20 million, announced through the action plan—and critically for the issue of housing, they are linking it to Scotland’s national housing strategy, to ensure that Gypsy and Traveller communities, whether living on official or new sites or in their nomadic lifestyles, have access to that investment.
We have even recently seen here in Scotland some rather unfortunate terminology from the UK Government’s party and the way in which some of its members have utilised the debate to marginalise, yet again, the Gypsy and Traveller community in Scotland. I am glad that no one else here is participating in the use of that type of language.
Will the Minister consider that this may be an opportune time to reflect on what is happening in Scotland? I am referring to the right-to-roam legislation and the working with the Gypsy and Traveller community. As Members from across England have already mentioned, there is a requirement not only to invest in existing sites, but to open up England’s ancient and historic Traveller sites, which are as much a part of England’s heritage as any other element of it. It is very important, I think, that that should be done. Will the Minister recognise the recommendation not to criminalise trespass? Because of the existing legislation, police forces across not only England but Wales and Scotland say that there is no need for new legislation.
There is also a requirement to understand infrastructure. I happen to be the Member of Parliament for West Dunbartonshire, in which are found the national park headquarters for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. I am afraid we have to say that the vast majority of trespass, vandalism and the lighting of fires has never traditionally been by the Traveller or Gypsy community; it has been by those of us who went out and utilised that lovely part of the world. Through the right to roam and working with people, working with communities, the national park as a body has reduced those elements: fires, litter and antisocial behaviour. It has done so by ensuring that we work together. I hope that the Government and the Minister will reflect on the lived experiences and also the policy experiences across these islands, and I look forward to hearing their answers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I want to begin by thanking everyone who signed the petition and all the individuals and organisations that have spent a lot of time, in the various consultations and processes around this issue, giving their views. It is clear that there is a very strong community of organisations, from all kinds of backgrounds and interests, that are coming together to give their view and to oppose what the Government are seeking to do. I thank those individuals and organisations.
I thank the hon. Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher), who I thought gave a very balanced view, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said; and I thank my hon. Friend, who is so principled and so practical in everything that he says—I hope that the Minister was paying close attention. Indeed, I thank all colleagues who spoke in the debate. We have heard about both the importance of keeping our countryside open as much as possible for as many people as possible and about the other side of this issue, which is the prejudice and harm that the legislation will do to the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities. That was very well articulated by several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), who made a really powerful case. I thank everyone for their contributions.
As we have heard, over 140,000 people signed the petition against the Government’s proposals. That is not surprising, given the moral and practical problems that the Government are introducing with the proposals. The Petitions Committee’s online survey was really interesting and asked petitioners for their views. As has been said, over 84% of respondents told the Petitions Committee that
“the criminalisation of trespass would have a ‘major’ or ‘moderate’ effect on how they live their lives as they do today…Many respondents were concerned that criminalising trespass could increase pre-existing tensions, mistrust, and lack of understanding between their local community and Travellers. There was consensus that more needs to be done to provide authorised sites for Travellers.”
As I mentioned, a broad coalition—from the NSPCC to Liberty, from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to the Ramblers Association, and from the police to Shelter—is united in the view that the proposals put forward by the Government would be wrong and unhelpful and would go against our basic rights. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is designed to criminalise the act of trespassing when making an unauthorised encampment. What is proposed in the Bill on the trespassing of unauthorised encampments is deeply concerning and unnecessary. As one of the responders to the Petitions Committee’s survey put it:
“The criminalisation of trespass will simply exacerbate an already fraught relationship. Gypsies and Travellers will still camp but there’ll be more prosecutions, more distrust, more public money spent on legalities”.
Other people who have a nomadic lifestyle have told me that they feel that they will no longer be able to live on the road in the way that we have seen in this country since the 16th century, and that the Bill risks criminalising their way of life. Failure to comply with a police direction to leave land occupied as part of an unauthorised encampment is already a criminal offence, but the proposals create a new offence of residing on land without consent in, or with, a vehicle. The broad way in which the definition is drafted seems to capture the intention to do this as well as actually doing it—the intention can be criminalised as well—with penalties of imprisonment of up to three months or a fine of up to £2,500, or both. The loose drafting of the wording in the legislation invites problems with its interpretation, and it is simply not fair to put that on the police. If someone were to drive in a car, park it and walk somewhere in order to wild camp beneath the stars, what does “with a vehicle” cover in the legislation? How far away from the vehicle would the campers have to be in order to escape carrying out a potential criminal offence?
The major concern that the Opposition have with this part of the Bill, and that is articulated in the petition, is that it is clearly targeted at Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and such criminalisation could breach the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. When the powers in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 were first debated in Parliament, it was stated that the powers were intended to deal with “mass trespass”. In the new Bill, however, even a single Gypsy or Traveller travelling in a single vehicle will be caught by the offence. What constitutes
“significant damage, disruption or distress”
is subjective, particularly as there needs to be only one vehicle, and what constitutes the intention to cause
“significant damage, disruption or distress”
is even more subjective. That is in part why the measures to increase police powers on unauthorised encampments are not backed by the police, as we have heard. When Friends, Families and Travellers researched the consultation responses that the Government received, it found that 84% of the police responses did not support the criminalisation of unauthorised encampments.
In her opening speech, the hon. Member for South Ribble quoted the Minister as saying he wants to ensure that the police have the powers they need. Actually, they believe that they already have the powers they need. Senior police are telling us that the changes in the Bill relating to unauthorised encampments would only make matters worse. They would add considerable extra cost to the already overstretched police and risk potentially breaching the Human Rights Act.
The views of the National Police Chiefs Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners were clearly put in their joint submission to the 2018 Government consultation.
“Trespass is a civil offence and our view is that it should remain so. The possibility of creating a new criminal offence of ‘intentional trespass’…has been raised at various times over the years but the NPCC position has been—and remains—that no new criminal trespass offence is required. The co-ordinated use of the powers already available under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 allows for a proportionate response to encampments based on the behaviour of the trespassers.”
Why are the Government determined to lock up Gypsies and Travellers against even the advice of our own police?
The police already have extensive powers in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to move on unauthorised encampments. As of January 2020, just 3% of Gypsy and Traveller caravans in England were on unauthorised encampments. Some 419 of those caravans were on sites not tolerated and 275 were on tolerated sites. Police and campaigners tell us that the evidence is not there for these new powers to be necessary at all and that many more authorised encampment sites should be provided instead. In their joint response to the Government’s consultation on unauthorised encampments, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and the National Police Chiefs’ Council called for the shortage of transit sites and the lack of accommodation provision to be addressed.
In a ministerial statement on 8 March 2021, the Home Secretary stated:
“As of January 2020, the number of lawful traveller sites increased by 41% from January 2010.”—[Official Report, 8 March 2021; Vol. 690, c. 22W.]
Friends, Families and Travellers has pointed out that
“this is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.”
It says that the 41% referred to by the Home Secretary is in fact
“an increase in transit provision and the Ministerial Statement fails to include this key component of referencing ‘transit’.”
That amounts to about 101 additional transit pitches, which is 10 a year over 10 years, whereas the number of permanent pitches has gone down by over 500 since 2010. Friends, Families and Travellers goes on to say:
“This misrepresentation of the figures leads people to believe there has been a much greater increase in site provision than there has. In fact, the Government published figures show there has been an overall 8.4% decrease of pitches on local authority Traveller sites.”
The Government should be focusing on ensuring that local authorities have the resources they need to provide more space for Traveller communities to legally reside. By taking an enforcement approach to addressing the number of unauthorised encampments, they are overlooking the lack of site provision. Friends, Families and Travellers notes:
“There are other solutions to managing unauthorised encampments, such as negotiated stopping, whereby arrangements are made on agreed permitted times on stopping and to ensure the provision of basic amenities such as water, sanitation and refuse collection.”
The Conservative party manifesto commitment and the Government response to the consultation refer to littering as a problem. Why do the Government not consider providing more authorised camping sites with proper refuse facilities? If a family are asked to move on, where are they supposed to go if there is no authorised encampment in their area? Why do the Government think that confiscating someone’s home, putting them in prison and fining them is the answer?
The legislation that the Government seek to introduce would cause harm to Gypsy and Traveller communities for generations and threaten their very way of life. It is impractical, misleading and adds nothing useful to the law that already exists to tackle problems such as rubbish and antisocial behaviour, which we all abhor and which the Government claim they seek to address. I urge the Government to rethink these harmful proposals.
This debate has been a good opportunity to raise concerns about the forthcoming Bill, which we will discuss in more detail in Committee. I end by asking the Minister to answer the following questions in his response. Can he provide an update on the progress of the national strategy to tackle Gypsy, Roma and Traveller inequalities, which was announced by the Government in June 2019? We have heard nothing since then. Under the provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, what would happen to a Traveller family in a single vehicle who are residing on a highway and have nowhere else to go?
Can the Minister clarify the Home Secretary’s claim that there has been a 41% increase in site provision? Can he confirm that that applies only to transit provision and that permanent site provision has significantly decreased? Can he confirm that the provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill on unauthorised encampments are not in breach of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010?
Will the Minister look at different approaches, such as that of the Welsh Labour Government, who have placed a legal duty on local authorities to ensure that the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers are properly assessed and that the needs for pitches are met? As an example of the current lack of provision for Gypsies and Travellers, only eight of 68 councils in south-east England have identified enough land in their areas for Travellers to live on. Will the Minister tell us where those Gypsy and Traveller families, who will otherwise be criminalised, are supposed to go?
Finally, does the Minister agree with the multiple concerns raised by the police, and what is he doing about them? What is he doing to ensure that the Bill, if passed, does not damage our rights as British people and cause more harm than good?
It is a great pleasure to appear under your beneficent hand on this beautiful spring day, Mr Bone. As I am sure colleagues are aware, the debate was convened on the strength of an online petition submitted on 5 September last year. Since then, the Government have published our response to the public consultation “Strengthening Police Powers to Tackle Unauthorised Encampments”, and we have introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which sets out our measures to introduce the new criminal offence. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) for her introduction to the debate, and to all hon. Members who have participated.
I understand that those who signed the petition were primarily concerned about the impact that the new offence might have on the ancient freedoms of walkers and the wider public to access the countryside. As somebody who represents 220 square miles of beautiful chalk downland in the northern part of Hampshire, I am pleased to be able to say that those who wish to enjoy the countryside, including in my constituency, will not be prevented from doing so by the offence. We made that clear in our response to the consultation, and the clauses currently before Parliament set out the circumstances in which the new powers can be used.
Our proposals, which were included in our manifesto, are aimed squarely at unauthorised encampments. For many of our constituents, and for landowners, those cause damage, destruction or distress, as well as causing significant cost to local authorities. Residents often feel helpless as their local amenities are damaged or disrupted, and for some councils, such as in Birmingham in 2016, with £700,000 of clean-up costs, the bills can be huge. I have seen that repeatedly in my own constituency.
It is only right, then, that the Government seek to protect citizens and strike a balance for those who are adversely affected by unauthorised encampments. The measures that we are introducing in the Bill will give the police the powers to bring an end to the misery caused by some unauthorised encampments. The new criminal offence will apply where a person who resides on land with a vehicle causes significant damage, disruption or distress and does not leave when asked to do so. That means that the powers will not apply to people camping in tents in the countryside or to others who inadvertently stray on to private land.
The Government have also amended the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which gives police the power to direct people away from land in the first instance when they are causing lower levels of harm, disruption or distress. We will broaden the types of harm that can be caught under that provision to include physical damage to the land and non-physical damage, such as damage to the environment, which includes excessive noise and litter. Disruption includes an interference with a person’s ability to access any facilities located on the land or otherwise make lawful use of the land, or with a supply of water, energy or fuel. Offensive conduct, such as threats or abuse, is also covered. We will also increase from three months to 12 months the period for which trespassers directed away from the land must not return. We will enable police to direct people away from land that forms part of a highway.
I reassure hon. Members again that those who wish to access the countryside to walk, hike, climb or cycle—as many of us love to do—will not be caught by the measures. We all have the right to enjoy the beautiful national parks and green spaces that this country has to offer, and we will be able to continue to exercise that right, even when the Bill is passed. I am sure that that will come as welcome relief to those clubs, associations and individuals who have taken the time to write to their MPs or the Home Office about the issue.
Will the Minister explain why he thinks that the organisations that he indicates, such as the Ramblers Association, whose comments I read out, are not at all persuaded by the Government’s view? Will he, the Minister for Policing, address the police’s concerns? They do not believe that the provisions are sensible. Will he also address what the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), said about equalities and human rights law? He must be familiar with the leading cases of Chapman v. UK and Bromley v. Persons Unknown. Does he think he will face legal challenges if this goes through?
I will come on to many of those issues later in my speech if the hon. Gentleman will be patient.
We received significant support in the consultation for some of these measures. Some 94% of local authorities that responded to the consultation supported one or more of the proposed amendments. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his speech, will extend the powers of the police to direct trespassers away from land.
During the passage of the Bill, I hope we will be able to reassure the groups that have perhaps taken alarm at these measures that they will not be affected. Let us remember that there is the lock that significant harm and disruption must be under way and that people must be residing with a vehicle, so this does not cover ramblers, who, presumably, are without a vehicle—I am not sure whether a canoe counts as a vehicle or indeed whether one can reside in a canoe. Therefore, those who are wild camping or enjoying the countryside will be unaffected. Hopefully, that will come as a relief.
I now turn to the impact on Traveller communities set out in the petition statement. The legislation is not anti-Traveller and it would be wrong to portray it as such. We know that a small minority of people in unauthorised encampments cause harm, disruption and distress, but the vast majority of Travellers are law-abiding citizens, and unauthorised sites can often give an unfair and negative image of their communities. Enforcement will obviously not be based on ethnicity. Rather, anyone who causes significant harm, disruption or distress under the specified conditions and who refuses to leave when asked to do so will be caught by the offence. The Government want to ensure fair and equal treatment for all travelling communities. Settled and travelling communities should be able to live side by side harmoniously, and indeed integrate. We hope that the clear rules and boundaries that we are putting in place will facilitate that. The police are fully trained, and we expect that their actions will continue to be compliant with equality and human rights law.
The Government remain committed to developing a cross-Government strategy, as mentioned by my shadow, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), to tackle the inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. We are also committed to supporting the provision of Traveller sites via the new homes bonus. This provides an incentive for local authorities to encourage housing growth in their areas and rewards net increases in effective housing stock, including the provision of authorised Traveller pitches.
In addition, the £11.5 billion affordable homes programme will deliver a wide range of affordable homes to meet the housing needs of people in different circumstances and different housing markets, and will include funding for new Traveller pitches. Data shows that we have seen an increase in the number of caravans on authorised sites from 14,498 in July 2010 to 20,043 in July 2019, showing that this locally led planning system works. We expect that local planning authorities should assess the need for Traveller sites in their areas and make provision accordingly. Local authorities are best placed to make decisions about the number and location of such sites locally, having due regard to national policy and local circumstances.
Finally, I note that the e-petition refers to the impact that the new offence will have on clamping down on peaceful protest. Of course, the right to protest is a fundamental human right and is central to our democracy. Although the new offences do not apply to protests, we are introducing other measures in the Bill that will enable the police to better manage highly disruptive protests, striking a better balance between the rights of protestors and the rights of others to go about their business unhindered.
I will not. I hope this Chamber is reassured that the measures the Government are taking are right, balanced and measured. We are delivering on one of the manifesto commitments that we were elected on. I commend the Government’s response to the e-petition.
What an interesting debate. We have heard from passionate enjoyers of the countryside, including from the city of Sheffield—I particularly enjoyed the description of Manchester and Sheffield as one city with a massive park in the middle of it. That is how much the countryside is valued on both sides, and what has come across very clearly in the contributions of the hon. Members for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) is the idea that access to the environment is a fundamentally British right, provided that we stick within the rules of the countryside. I was delighted to hear that.
We have also heard some powerful testimony about the harms that illegal encampments can cause from my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), to give him his full title. It was very obvious that the acts of that minority of individuals are a cause of personal pain to him, as well as—being a serving council officer—a significant financial disruption.
We heard from the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) about how important it is to make sure we have a complete lack of discrimination and the extra sites to provide for a unique part of our heritage, which as one Member mentioned—forgive me, I have forgotten which—has been part of our lives since the 16th century. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) made a hugely important plea to ensure that we always bear in mind that racism, in all forms, is abhorrent. I am quite happy with that, as I am—on a personal note—with the fact that so many Members from urban constituencies have attended this debate to talk about something that is fundamentally about access to the countryside, such as the wonderful areas within South Ribble and those within the Minister’s constituency.
I will draw my remarks to a conclusion there. I hope the petitioners feel that we have done them justice with today’s debate, and let them draw their own conclusions from what the Government and Opposition spokesmen have said. Thank you, Mr Bone; it has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 300139, relating to trespass.