Over 2,000 local residents have signed my petition calling for trespass to be made a criminal offence which demonstrates the strength of local feeling about this issue. Illegal encampments continue to blight the lives of law abiding citizens all too often and this must stop.
During my time as Housing and Planning Minister I initiated the original consultation on changes in the law. The good news is that the Government has now made progress on this issue, setting out new measures to tackle illegal encampments. And the Home Secretary has made clear that the Government is now actively considering making trespass a criminal offence.
The response to the Government consultation I initiated was clear - problems are caused for communities by travellers moving from place to place - so councils will be reminded of their existing obligation to provide enough “transit sites” to reduce the risk of communities seeing illegal sites set-up on their doorstep and to identify suitable sites, so problems are not simply shifted on to neighbouring areas.
The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government has committed to give councils up to £1.5 million of extra funding to help them enforce planning rules and tackle unauthorised sites, with funding also available under the £9 billion Affordable Homes Programme to help pay for legal pitches.
Alongside this, the department has given £250,000 to support projects working with Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities to tackle discrimination, improve integration, healthcare and education.
The Government will also consider making data available on where legal sites are, so it is clear which authorities are not offering their fair share of traveller facilities. Under new guidance to be published, the Communities Secretary will step in and review cases where there are concerns raised that there are too many authorised traveller sites in one location.
Additionally, the Home Office will launch a review into whether it should criminalise the act of trespassing when setting up an encampment. A change in the law may allow the police to respond quicker and take tougher action.
I hope that you, like me, welcome this progress and I will continue to pursue this matter so trespass does formally become 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.