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Harlow MP Robert Halfon leads debate in parliament on illegal encampments

News / Thu 27th Nov 2014 at 08:08am

THE MP for Harlow, Robert Halfon led a debate in parliament on the on-going problem with illegal encampments in Harlow.

Here is a transcript of the full speech.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I am hugely grateful to the Speaker for granting me this debate on illegal encampments in the East of England, something that has been a particularly big problem in Harlow over the past year.

I would like to especially thank Marysia Rudgeley and the Harlow Anti-Social Behaviour Team, who have been working tirelessly to solve the issue, and individual Harlow police officers who I know have the best interests of Harlow at heart.

But most of all Mr Chairman, I would like to give special thanks to the local residents of Harlow who, despite many of them suffering misery over the past year, have been patient, kind, and tolerant under the circumstances.

I should add that I have nothing against travellers as a community. Nothing against their way of life, and believe they have a right to equality before the law. I appreciated speaking, and meeting, with the travellers in Harlow who have made their views clear to me.

But, like most residents, I cannot accept that it is acceptable to build illegal encampments wherever they like. Equality before the law means everyone should be equal before the law.

This debate will be concentrating on four issues:

• first, the failure of the authorities in the East of England to adequately deal with illegal encampments;
• Second, the failure of the police to consistently uphold the law;
• Third, the failure of our Police and Crime Commissioner to scrutinise the police as his job requires;
• And fourth, what the government can do about this.

According to the most recent government statistics, 1,280 caravans were in unauthorised encampments on land not owned by travellers in July 2014. Many of these were in the East of England. In Suffolk, there has been over 200 unauthorised encampments since 2007, and there have been high profile camps across the region, in places such as Wisbech, Basildon, Thurrock and Peterborough.

However, few places have suffered as badly as Harlow. Since October 2013, as of yesterday – 81 illegal encampments have been set up in Harlow.
I have been contacted by hundreds of residents in distress, with stories of alleged antisocial and intimidating behaviour committed by the occupants of the sites, and have seen for myself the mess that each site has been left in.

Every time the illegal camps are moved on, the occupants just create another site, often down the road. So far, Harlow Council has spent over £40,000 of taxpayer’s money dealing with the problem, and over 2,100 residents have signed a petition calling for urgent action.

The situation has become so bad, that the Sun, Mail, Times and national TV have covered the story, and The Sun newspaper did a two page spread on Harlow last week, with the headline ‘The town under siege by gypsies’.

Harlow is a beautiful town, and I am proud to represent it as MP, but illegal encampments are destroying our reputation, and the quality of life of many Harlow residents.

Local Authorities.

Initially I would like to talk about local authorities’ response to the issue, and will make a number of points:

• First, that adequate laws are available to be used,
• second pursuing the occupants of camps for compensation,
• and third, the issue of needing more sites.

As I mentioned before, I have nothing but admiration for the hardworking members of Harlow Council’s antisocial behaviour team.

However I am concerned that Harlow Council has been reluctant to use all of the powers available to them, and have given out confusing messages.

For example, despite DCLG recommending that Councils can use byelaws to deal with unauthorised encampments, Harlow Council has said that:

“it would be difficult to justify attaching this power to a main dwelling, thus effectively making a person homeless”.

They have also said that they cannot use section 77 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, as vehicles are frequently changed by travellers.
However, as this also applies to caravans, it seems surprising that the illegal occupants would be changing such big ticket items so often – as to make enforcement of the law impossible.

I hope, in this debate, the Minister will be able to set out what powers are available to local authorities, so as to avoid any further confusion in cases such as these.

I am also disappointed that, in some cases, the Council in Harlow seemed slow to act, a point that has been echoed by colleagues from other councils across the East of England, such as my hon. friend, the member for Thurrock.

According to what is available on the Harlow Council website, the local Council did not approach DCLG for help or further guidance until 17th July 2014 – this was 9 months after the problem first began. The the town had already experienced 35 illegal encampments during this time.

Another problem that many of my colleagues will have faced across the East of England, is the mess that is left after an illegal encampment has been in an area.

In Harlow, this has been particularly bad. Many residents have written to me complaining about churned up mud on green spaces due to cars constantly driving on and off fields, flytipping, and human waste. One mother told me that she could no longer allow her children to play outside, as she had witnessed children from an illegal encampment using the local playground as an outside toilet.

It would be helpful if it could be clarified exactly how this waste should be dealt with? Who is responsible? Is it the Council or the Environment Agency?

It is disappointing that so far, only one individual has been arrested for fly-tipping, and they were not even prosecuted.

It is surprising that Harlow Council have said:

“With regard to public excrement while there is evidence of harm there is insufficient evidence at this time to show that it amounts to a public health issue that Environmental Health Officers could prosecute for”.

One resident has written to me saying that the land outside their home, and their fence, has been turned into an open public toilet and they are now seriously concerned about their children’s health. Action must urgently be taken to stop this.

Furthermore, the council should be much more aggressive in pursuing the perpetrators for compensation. It is outrageous that hardworking Harlow residents are having to spend thousands of pounds on clean up costs.

The Council say on their website that:

“There is very little any Council can do to recover money from illegal encampments”.

I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify whether this is indeed the case.

Furthermore, I would like to address the issue of traveller pitches. A spokesman for the travellers in Harlow has said that they cannot leave because “they have nowhere else to go”.

There has been a persistent criticism, mainly from those of the Labour Party, that the Government has failed to provide enough camps.

Indeed, I am disappointed that Essex Council has failed to provide any transient camps, and neither Essex Council nor Harlow Council applied for Traveller Pitch Funding from the grant available from the Government, which is designed to meet the needs of the travelling community.

But I am also not convinced this would solve the problem in Harlow. Our town already has two legal traveller sites, one of which has ten free spaces on it. Furthermore, where transient sites do exist, for example in Peterborough, they are rarely used. I would certainly suggest that any further sites in Essex were not sited in Harlow.

We already have more than our fair share.

Furthermore, not having a transient site is no excuse to break the law. There are thousands of people on the waiting list for housing in Harlow, none of them are allowed to set up illegal encampments, and they do not do so.

Failure of the Police.

I would now like to move on to talk about the police response to illegal encampments, focusing on communication with residents and inconsistent use of available laws.
Although there has been some good examples of local police officers in Harlow going above and beyond their duties to help residents, I have also received many complaints about allegations not being taken seriously. One lady got in touch to say her car and property had been damaged, but the police didn’t even come to see it.

To date, only 11 Section 61 Notices had been served, despite there having been 81 illegal encampments. I have been told by the police that ACPO guidelines make using Section 61 in this context complex.

ACPO guidelines Section 1.6 state:

“Decisions to evict or not must, be balanced (as directed by legislation and Government guidance), and be compliant with the terms of the Human Rights Act 1998, demonstrating legality, necessity, and proportionality, as well as principles of common humanity”.

Interestingly, in a letter to the Minister, the Chief Executive of Harlow Council states:

“The Council is concerned about the differing decisions taken in respect of whether a Section 61 Notice should be used or not. We do not feel that the guidance provided by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) is particularly helpful in this regard.”

I would agree with Harlow Council on this point. It is essential that Section 61 notices are served consistently.

I would appreciate it if the Minister confirms today that these guidelines are only that – guidelines.

I, and residents, have a real fear that the police are using guidelines as a convenient excuse for inaction.

However, the Council has also said that Section 62 of the same Act which can be used when travellers trespass on land and are not using pitches available to them, cannot be used because there are no legal sites available.

But, as previously stated, there are 10 pitches which could be made use of in Harlow, and if this is such a necessity in order to prevent criminality, it is even more astonishing that neither Essex nor Harlow Council applied for traveller pitch funding when it was available.

Even if it is not possible to issue Section 61 or 62 Notices, the police could use Section 59 of the Police Reform Act which deals with vehicles being used in a manner that causes alarm, distress, or annoyance.

Surely, this could apply to cars driving aggressively down, and blocking, cycle paths?

This lack of action is sadly resulting in a serious loss of faith in the Chief Constable.

One resident recently wrote to me about a group of caravans parked illegally on the roadside by a school. They said:

“The police were contacted by one of the other parents and the school’s headteacher. The police simply recorded the information but don’t appear to be doing anything about it”.

I have also been contacted about police driving past and seeing travellers driving up and down cycle paths but simply ignoring it. Sadly, I then get residents asking me what would happen if they did the same, and I can only conclude that the police would usually, and should, take action in such circumstances. It is wrong that many people in Harlow now believe that those who occupy illegal encampments are above the law.

I have previously written to the Home Secretary, with my hon. friend for Thurrock, asking for an inquiry into whether the Chief Constable of Essex Police is upholding the law properly, and whether his response until now has been appropriate. I welcome the agreement of the Policing Minister to a meeting with myself and the Member for Thurrock to discuss this.

As I say again, whilst I respect the contributions of individual officers, residents of Harlow believe the police are more concerned about the human rights of travellers rather than those of law abiding residents, and that the police are hiding behind ACPO guidelines whilst trying to put all the burden on the local authorities and the courts.

Police and Crime Commissioner

That said, it is incredible that I, and the Member for Thurrock, have had to write to three cabinet members because of a lack of confidence in the Chief Constable of Essex Police, and the Police and Crime Commissioner. And it is to the Police and Crime Commissioner that I wish to turn to next.

The problem is that we have a PCC who still has no Essex wide strategy to deal with the problem of illegal encampments, he does not hold the chief constable to account on this issue, he does not represent residents, or respond to residents in a timely fashion.

Following the joint letter that I wrote with my hon. friend for Thurrock, I received a letter from the PCC which I found astonishing.

In the letter he states:

“We must encourage residents to report incidents of concern to them to the police, but I know from close contact with the police there have been relatively few of these and when the allegations you have often repeated on air have been investigated the reality is not as you tend to represent it.”

Notably, Harlow Council are at odds with this view, and have said that:

“The experience in Harlow is such that regrettably criminality is often associated with illegal encampments.”

But, I would like the Police and Crime Commissioner to think about that statement when he hears the following stories, and explain to Harlow residents why he thinks there are ‘relatively few incidents’ that do not reflect reality.

Let me give you a few of them:

• One elderly lady had abuse shouted at her whilst out walking her dog by a group of young men who followed her to the shops. She was so scared that the police had to come and take her home, although no action was taken against the men. She didn’t go out for several weeks, despite it being Christmas, and became seriously ill due to stress.

• One family told me that they had tools stolen from the back of a van. Despite the fact that they knew who had taken them and they were on an illegal encampment nearby, they told me that the police said they should just claim on their insurance and should not go and try to get the tools back. Several days later, they saw their tools being sold at a local DIY store car park, from the back of a van.

• Or the husband who was punched by a group of around 20 young men, but have now lost so much confidence in the police’s ability to act that they didn’t report it.

I do not believe that these residents are exaggerating, but sadly I do feel that Harlow residents have lost faith that the Chief Constable and the Police Commissioner will act on their concerns.

The PCC has also criticised my call for zero tolerance on illegal encampments, and I quote his letter:

“I do need to make it clear to you that I believe you are doing little genuinely to help the problem and you are at risk of exacerbating it…. too easily what you are saying should be a ‘zero tolerance’ approach is interpreted as zero tolerance towards travellers. This cannot be right and I would urge you to be really cautious. As I say I do not intend to respond in public to what I regard as frankly insulting comments but I think you are on thin ice”.

Well Mr. Commissioner, this is our fundamental disagreement.

I believe that we should have a policy of zero tolerance to illegal encampments; I believe that the PCC should represent residents, and I believe that he should have a proper Essex-wide strategy like the good work he has done implementing one for domestic violence.

And, although he has complained about our use of social media, I will encourage every resident in Harlow to write to him on social media.

I hope he will use the same passion and commitment he has for dealing with domestic violence cases as he has for dealing with illegal encampments.

Changes the Government can make

I will now turn to the changes the Government should make.

In a recent debate on BBC Essex Radio, the presenter Dave Monk made an important point.

In a question to me he said ‘aren’t you all passing the buck?’.

In a sense, he is right. I am not going to stand here today and just say it is all the fault of either the police or the authorities.

Whilst the government has already taken some significant steps forward in dealing with the problem of illegal encampments, such as lifting restrictions on Temporary Stop Notices that were inherited by the previous government, and strengthening the Localism Act, there are some deficiencies.

There are three things I wish to raise briefly:

• The law needs to be clearer;
• The law needs to be strengthened;
• Delays in the courts need to be tackled.

As will be clear from my speech today, the government should look at clarifying existing laws so that the authorities and the police are in no doubt as to what powers are available to them.

But the law could be strengthened further by making Intentional Trespass a criminal offence. This already exists in the Republic of Ireland, and allows for trespassers who refuse to move after being asked to do so by the police to be arrested.

The Conservative Party has previously said it would do this when it was in opposition. We should now follow through with a pledge, and make this happen.

The law also needs to look at ways to stop the game of cat and mouse that often occurs. For example, a group will be evicted from one area and prevented from returning for three months, but will just move down the road. It is important that this is addressed if progress is to be made.

Another area which needs addressing is delays in the courts system. One of the difficulties faced by the Anti-Social Behaviour Team when moving on occupants of the camps has been the length of time that it has taken to secure a court hearing.

In the worst cases, Harlow Council has had to wait 14 days for a hearing date.

It would be helpful if the government could look at what could be done to help speed this process up, and I am grateful to the Justice Secretary for agreeing to tour the illegal sites on his upcoming visit to Harlow this Friday.

CONCLUSION

Mr Chairman, we’ve been living under siege in Harlow for the past year. We are a town in crisis. We’ve had 81 illegal encampments all over the town. This is just unsustainable. We cannot continue like this. We need serious action.

2,100 Harlow residents have so far signed my petition calling for action. I hope the Minister can help to alleviate the situation by setting out some serious changes to the laws, and to ensure that our PCC holds the Chief Constable to account, so that our town can reach Christmas without being blighted by anti-social behaviour and mess.

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