Over the past months my constituency has faced an escalating number of illegal encampments. And residents in Tilehurst, Theale, Southcote, Coley, around Prospect Park, Purley, Pangbourne and Tidmarsh have all suffered varying levels of distress, anti-social behaviour and intimidation.
The power to disperse illegal encampments sits with Thames Valley Police and the local authorities, Reading Borough Council and West Berkshire Council, and my office and I 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.
Thames Valley Police has agreed an updated protocol with local authorities to deal with unauthorised encampments. This is good news. But I do think that our local police officers need a clear direction from the top of their chain of command that they need to follow through much more quickly sometimes on using the powers available to them. I made this clear in a very recent discussion with the Chief Constable. So the powers already available to the authorities must be exercised fully and quickly. But I also share the view that those powers should be strengthened.
Last year, whilst I was Housing Minister, I led a very well attended debate on Gypsy and Traveller communities in Parliament. In the debate some MPs argued that trespass needs to be made a criminal offence. I agree that we need to strengthen the law. Trespass is a criminal offence 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.
During that debate I promised Parliament that the Government would launch a consultation on strengthening powers to deal with illegal encampments. This consultation, which was launched in April, has now closed and I know constituents took the opportunity to respond to it.
For those residents who did not have an opportunity to respond to the consultation I have launched a local Illegal Encampments Petition which can be completed online at www.aloksharma.co.uk/content/illegalencampments. A paper version can be requested by contacting my office firstname.lastname@example.org or 0118 941 3803.
The strength of local feeling will absolutely strengthen the case I make to the highest levels of the Government on this issue. We cannot continue having the lives of law-abiding local residents disrupted constantly by illegal encampments. Enough is enough.