Current police and local authority powers over unauthorised encampments are not working, but, warns Caroline Bolton, ministers must tread carefully.
Police and local authority powers to manage unauthorised traveller encampments are under review- and it is essential that any reforms deal only with encampments that cause serious anti-social behaviour, rather than target law-abiding members of the travelling community.
Announcing the review last week, Dominic Raab, the local government minister, recognised that the majority of the gypsy and traveller community adhere to the law. The review is to focus on the minority of unauthorised encampments that cause significant anti-social behaviour.
Strengthening existing powers might assist the management of encampments that cause anti-social behaviour, but current problems are caused by a combination of factors, including limitations within the existing powers, lack of resources to respond to issues and a lack of temporary stopping sites for encampment.
There is already a raft of powers available for the management of unauthorised encampments. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 permits the police to direct unauthorised encampments to leave land if the requirements of the legislation’s sections are met. The direction prohibits a return to the land for three months. The police can direct the encampment to an alternative site and non-compliance is a criminal offence resulting in a custodial sentence of up to three months on conviction.
So, why have these police powers not resolved the issue?
The problem is the powers in the legislation only cover the land the unauthorised encampment is occupying at the time the direction is given. Accordingly, there is nothing to prevent the encampment simply moving to a neighbouring site down the road triggering the process again.
Furthermore, when dealing with large encampments, the police are sometimes reluctant to exercise their powers. Giving a direction to leave land is one thing. But encampments occasionally include more than 100 adults and children- and when they refuse to leave significant police resources are required to enforce the direction. Those resources are not always readily available.
The practice of encampments leaving one site as directed and moving swiftly onto a neighbouring site is, of course, also a problem for local authorities. They have similar powers to the police, but they must obtain a court order if an encampment refused to leave land contrary to a direction.
Since the decision in the 2015 High Court ruling of Harlow DC v Stokes, where other powers available to the police and local authority failed, the courts have indicated a willingness in appropriate cases, to grant an injunction prohibiting identified individuals from forming encampments anywhere within an authority’s administrative area. The success of these injunctions is primarily a result of the scope of the order that can be achieved. Breach of such an injunction can lead to up to two years in prison.
Accordingly, if the existing powers are to be reviewed and either revised or replaced, it will be crucial to their success that they have a greater scope that the current powers available under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
This article first appeared on The Times’ Brief Premium website, on 09.04.2018, and is accessible online here