MPs call for action over illegal travellers sites

MPs call for action over illegal travellers sites
Travellers cross the country and set up camp in various locations in order to earn a living.  (Photo: Habibur Rahman)

Tory MPs have  warned the government of “real anger” if they fail to tackle illegal traveller and gypsy sites.

MPs Andrew Selous, Mark Francois and Tim Loughton were among those calling for action in order to protect both traveller and settled communities.

Mr Selous was particularly critical over the conditions on some sites, labelled a public health risk by fellow Tory John Howell (Henley).

Emulating Ireland

The group of Conservative MPs favour the criminalising of deliberate trespassing, an approach already adopted in Ireland known as the “Irish Option”.

The move comes ahead of the government’s response to a consultation on the laws and powers to deal with unauthorised caravan sites and developments.

Travellers cross the country and set up camp in various locations in order to earn a living.  (Photo: Habibur Rahman)

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) said: “What we’re asking for essentially is the Irish option based on the fact in 2002 Ireland changed the law to make acts of deliberate trespass a criminal offence.”

Mr Francois added: “There will be real anger in this place if, as a result of this consultation, the Government doesn’t do something meaningful – rather than some very minor tweak in the law as window dressing – to address this problem, such that we would see a real decrease in the incidents in the next few years.”

‘A trail of devastation and rubbish’

Mr Loughton suggested that travellers should be punished for the “trail of devastation” that they leave behind.

“Invariably when they leave, they leave behind a trail of devastation of rubbish which costs the local taxpayer an enormous amount to clear up,” he said.

“Is not the change in the law that we need that, rather than have to point to a single person who caused the access damage, that collectively any group of Travellers illegally encamped should be liable for fines and compensation – which involves confiscation of, often, quite valuable vehicles as well – and they might then get the message they cannot continue with impunity trampling over the rights of local people.”

‘People fed up with living in fear’

Leading the debate on Gypsies and Travellers, Mr Selous said the “time for endless, constant reviews is over”.

He said: “Fair and decent-minded people who are fed up with living in fear, of seeing atrocious living conditions in their areas which often become ungoverned space where modern slavery and other crime flourishes, want action now, not constant reviews.”

Mr Selous pushed the case for integration, arguing the policy of segregation has “demonstrably failed” before telling MPs: “We also need trespass to be made part of the criminal law, as it is in Ireland.”

Other ideas suggested included having a registered landowner for Traveller sites.

Government response

For the Government, Communities minister Kit Malthouse said the majority of the Traveller community are “decent, law-abiding people”, adding he was “extremely concerned” about issues raised in the debate – including the conditions and activities on certain sites.

He said the Government’s recent consultation received more than 2,000 responses.

On the “Irish option”, Mr Malthouse told MPs: “The Communities Secretary (James Brokenshire) has recently met the Irish government to discuss their approach to trespass and unauthorised encampments.

“We will, however, provide a formal response to the consultation in due course.”

Traveller community call for new sites

Lucy Hetherington of Friends Families and Travellers, a national charity works on behalf of all Gypsies, Travellers and Roma regardless of ethnicity, culture or background, has criticised “the chronic shortage of gypsy and traveller sites in England”.

“Sixteen percent of caravans in the July 2017 national caravan count were on unauthorised land, largely as a result of this,” she said. “Many traditional stopping places and green lanes where Gypsy and Traveller families have stopped for centuries have systematically been closed off, forcing Gypsy and Traveller families to stop in public spaces.

“Everyone needs a place to live and local authorities must begin to allocate land in their Local Plan where Gypsies and Travellers can stop in their areas. Local authorities have a duty to identify land for sites, but only around 18% have done this.”

Hetherington suggested that government could be better spent on a ‘Negotiated stopping’ approach.

“Instead of spending money on clear up and legal fees when a Gypsy or Traveller families pull up in a public space, local authorities could instead employ the ‘Negotiated Stopping’ approach – where they provide waste and rubbish disposal, agree on the amount of time Travellers can stay in a location and in turn can direct Gypsy and Traveller families away from contentious locations.

“This approach has been found to offer cost savings to local authorities and also greatly improves community cohesion between settled and travelling communities.”