Reading West MP Alok Sharma has today launched a petition on tackling illegal encampments calling for a change in the law to make trespass a criminal offence. Illegal encampments have become an increasing problem for local constituents living both in Reading Borough as well as West Berkshire, with regular incursions experienced by residents across Tilehurst, Theale, Calcot, Southcote, Coley and on Prospect Park.
The petition reads:
“To the Government: the residents of Berkshire have suffered an intolerable imposition from an increasing number of unauthorised encampments. The Petitioners therefore urge the Government to introduce legislation to make trespass a criminal offence. This will strengthen the powers used by the police to deal with illegal encampments, in addition to those already available under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.”
Launching the petition, which is available in paper form to sign and can also be completed online by visiting www.aloksharma.co.uk/content/illegalencampments, Alok said:
“During my time as Housing Minister I promised Parliament that the Government would launch a consultation on strengthening powers to deal with illegal encampments. This consultation was launched several weeks ago and has now closed and I know many constituents took the opportunity to respond to it.
My view is clear – the law needs strengthening and trespass needs to be made a criminal offence. This is the case in the Republic of Ireland and we need this change here. It will deter illegal encampments as the individuals concerned will understand they will face criminal law sanctions, rather than civil ones, right from the start.
For those residents who did not have an opportunity to respond to the government consultation I have launched an Illegal Encampments Petition, which calls for a strengthening of the law. If local residents support this petition I would encourage them to complete it as it will strengthen the case I make to the current set of Ministers responsible for this area of policy.”
Locally the power to disperse illegal encampments sits with Thames Valley Police and the local authorities, Reading Borough Council and West Berkshire Council, and Alok and his office have been liaising with and speaking with both councils and the police as a matter of urgency on each of the illegal incursions which has taken place.
Alok also met with Francis Habgood, the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police, on 5th June to ask that his force is much more consistent and front-footed in the way it applies the powers it already has to deal with illegal encampments.
Under the current law there are circumstances in which the police can deal with illegal encampments as a matter of immediacy and evict individuals from a site, without first having to apply to the Courts and Alok has asked the Chief Constable to ensure that his local officers make full use of these powers where appropriate.
Thames Valley Police has been talking with local councils about better joint working on dealing with illegals encampments and has agreed an updated protocol titled: “Thames Valley Police and Local Authority Joint Protocol for dealing with Unauthorised Encampments.”
If residents would like a copy of this protocol they should email Alok via firstname.lastname@example.org. Pages 9-11 of this document set out the powers available to local authorities, the police and landowners and local residents will find this particularly useful should they wish to follow-up with Thames Valley Police or their local council in the future.
Alok concluded: “Both Reading Borough Council and West Berkshire Council have taken steps to protect some of the local areas which have faced regular incursions. However, I am urging both councils to move more quickly to protect vulnerable sites as, we know from experience, a different set of individuals sometimes set up an illegal encampment on the same site from which earlier illegal encampments have been moved on. This makes a mockery of the system.
I completely appreciate how frustrating it is to live near an illegal encampment, especially when this is accompanied by other anti-social activity which causes distress to law-abiding local residents. The current powers available to the police and local authorities must be applied more consistently right now to disperse these illegal encampments and I have made this clear in my recent meeting with the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police. But we will also need to strengthen legislation further to try and minimise the distress these illegal encampments cause in the first place.”
Photos: Alok visits local Tilehurst Village businesses with petition (Kim from Paul Francis, Lisa from The Village Florist and Helen from Forresters)