A campaigner for the rights of travellers has attacked plans by the Government to strengthen trespassing laws – arguing it will “weaken the civil liberties of everyone in this country”.
Roger Hirst, police and crime commissioner for Essex, has defended the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – which also involves elements curtailing protests . The bill passed its second reading 359-263 after being overwhelmingly backed by Conservative MPs.
The Home Office has said any criminal offence will be tightly-defined and will only apply in cases where a person aged 18 or over is residing on land without the consent of the occupier and have caused or are likely to cause significant damage, disruption or distress and have failed to respond to a request from the occupier or police to leave the land.
Police will also have the power to prosecute travellers if they return to a specific site within 12 months. The new offence will be punishable by a prison sentence of up to three months, or a fine of up to £2,500, or both.
Thomas Acton, patron of the Roma Support Group in London and secretary of the local Brentwood Gypsy Support Group, said: “Anyone can see that the measures the Government are proposing will add nothing whatsoever of substance to the ability of local authorities to control or regulate what is happening to travellers. The attempt to do so however may cause great harm.”
At present, under UK law trespass is a civil matter that must be dealt with through the courts.
Mr Hirst said: “You have got to hang onto the issue of proportionality. First they would be invited to move on. I’m quite sure that the council, as it does at the moment, would apply the law in just the way it needs to do so.
“If there is a big event due and the space is needed for something which is legitimate and organised there would be action taken. But they are not going out to simply arrest people because they have parked their vehicles.
“The law is about aggravated trespass.”
The bill promoted a passionate response from David Lammy MP in the House of Commons ahead of the vote.
He said: “The Government would rather blow a dog whistle against minorities than make women safe.
“Measures in the Bill will further compound the inequalities experienced by gypsies and travellers who are already the most disproportionately represented group in the justice system.
“Those found guilty of trespass in the bill could receive a higher sentence than someone convicted of stalking. Once again, this Government’s priorities are skewed. Even police forces do not support the Government’s criminalisation of trespass.
“The National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners said ‘trespass is a civil offence and our view is that it should remain so’.
“Why are the Government determined to lock up gypsies and travellers, even against the advice of their own police?”