As many of my constituents know I have been campaigning for some time, with their support, for a strengthening of the law to tackle illegal encampments. The good news is that legislation to deal with this issue is now starting to make its passage through Parliament.
Amongst other vital provisions the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will ensure that going forward the police are fully equipped with the powers they need to tackle illegal encampments more effectively.
Reading West has faced numerous unauthorised encampments over recent years and residents from across the constituency have suffered varying levels of distress, anti-social behaviour and intimidation. During my time as Housing and Planning Minister, I initiated the original consultation on changes in the law and I encouraged interested constituents to respond to the public consultation at the time. I subsequently launched a local petition which has been signed by over 2,000 people calling for trespass to be made a criminal offence. Since then, I have made numerous representations to former and current Home Secretaries to make the case for a change in the law.
The Bill will introduce a new criminal offence where a person resides or intends to reside on any public or private land without permission and has caused, or is likely to cause, significant harm, obstruction, or harassment or distress. The Home Office has taken steps to ensure that those exercising their rights to enjoy the countryside are not inadvertently impacted by these measures.
In addition, the Bill amends the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to broaden the list of harms that can be considered by the police when directing people away from land. It also increases the period in which persons directed away from land must not return, from three months to 12 months. Amendments to the 1994 Act will in addition allow police to direct trespassers away from land that forms part of a highway.
I very much hope that once this new Bill becomes law, we will see fewer illegal encampments and, importantly, the police will use their strengthened powers if they need to. This legislation cannot come into force soon enough and I am grateful to all my constituents who have supported my campaign for a change in the law.