Last summer I wrote in my column about the need for the Police to be granted powers to shut unauthorised traveller sites quickly. And, it formed a central part of my four-point plan to tackle local antisocial behaviour. Having tabled written and oral questions, as well as meeting with the Home Secretary, I am delighted that under the Police and Crime Sentencing Bill, which passed its Second Reading in the House of Commons last week, we are now one step closer to this now becoming a reality.
Over the last year residents have reported to my office repeated examples of antisocial behaviour and criminal damage resulting from illegal encampments which have arrived in Sevenoaks, Hextable and Otford. As illegal encampments are a civil offence, it has often necessitated a tremendous amount of hard work from the local and parish councils, supported by my office, to evict people from these unlawful sites. Indeed, in some instances local authorities have had to employ bailiffs to have such incursions moved on, as well as being involved in the further expense of clean-up operations once illegal sites have been vacated. This is not only a waste of taxpayers’ money, but also causes untold stress for many local residents.
The Police and Crime Sentencing Bill includes provision which, once passed, will allow police officers the power to challenge illegal encampments of one vehicle or more. If people wilfully refuse to move on, they can be arrested with a maximum sentence of three months’ imprisonment or a fine of up to £2,500, or both. Crucially, offenders can also have their property, including their vehicle or vehicles, impounded by the police.
It is important to stress that this applies to illegal sites only, and not to authorised traveller sites, which do not pose any of the issues outlined here.
For many local residents this change on illegal sites cannot come soon enough, and I am delighted our calls for action have been heeded.