Earlier this month, housing minister Dominic Raab announced that new powers were being considered to manage unauthorised traveller encampments.
Raab acknowledged in his announcement that most gypsies and travellers are law-abiding members of the community, and confirmed that the proposed review is designed to focus on the minority of unauthorised encampments that are responsible for significant anti-social behaviour.
It will, however, be futile to provide further powers without: further resources to enforce any new powers; and an increase in the number of temporary stopping sites available for encampments. Further, any new powers will need to have a greater scope than those currently available to the police and Local Authority under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
At present, the main legislative powers that are available to the police and Local Authority to manage unauthorised encampments are sections 61, 62A, 77 and 78 of the aforementioned Act. Under sections 62A the police can direct encampments to leave land and move to an alternative site. The limited number of temporary stopping sites usually makes such a direction impossible.
Where there is no alternative site, or, the anti-social behaviour is too severe to justify directing the encampment to an alternative site, the police are left with the power under section 61 of the Act. This power allows the police to direct the encampment to leave the existing site, without the need to direct the encampment to an alternative site.
Breach of a section 61 direction can on conviction lead to a custodial sentence of up to three months. The problem with the section 61 direction, is the direction only remains in force for three months, and only applies to the land encamped on; there is nothing stopping the encampment from simply moving to a neighbouring site, requiring the process to start all over again.
Further, the police can be reluctant to issue a section 61 direction, as enforcing the direction can prove problematic when the police are dealing with a large encampment that refuses to leave the land. On some occasions there is simply not sufficient police resource readily available to enforce the direction.
Under section 77 of the Act, the Local Authority has similar powers to the police to direct encampments to leave land. A Local Authority must, however, obtain a court order to remove the encampment if the encampment refuses to leave the land in accordance with the direction.
In the leading case of Harlow DC v Stokes & Ors (2015), an injunction was granted by the court prohibiting identified individuals from forming encampments anywhere within the Local Authority’s administrative area. Since this case the courts have indicated a willingness to grant an injunction where other available powers have failed. The scope of these injunctions has meant that they have proved highly successful. Breach of an injunction can lead to up to two years in prison.
If new powers are to be introduced and successfully manage encampments causing anti-social behaviour, the powers will need a greater scope than those provided under the current legislation. The government will have to take care, however, to ensure that any new powers are used only to tackle encampments causing anti-social behaviour, and are not used to marginalise law-abiding members of the traveller community.