Criminalising trespass: why should we be worried?

“Some marginalised communities may find themselves criminalised simply for following their traditional way of life.” Former MEP Catherine Rowett explores the issue of criminalising trespass and who it will affect most.

Trespassing sign
Catherine Rowett

On page 19 of the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto, under the heading “Our plan to cut crime”, we read:

We will tackle unauthorised traveller camps. We will give the police new powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments, in order to protect our communities. We will make intentional trespass a criminal offence, and we will also give councils greater powers within the planning system.

The three things in bold here are cunningly rolled into one project that purports to “cut crime”. But would this cut crime or increase it? It promises to criminalise actions that are not currently crimes—thereby increasing crime figures, insofar as things that were not previously criminal  come to the criminal courts. Meanwhile, seizing people’s property and vehicles looks like a kind of stealing (licensed crime for the state?) and the last sentence, about intentional trespass, opens a can of worms about whether some normal activities might silently become criminal offences, besides the “traveller camps”.

The Government’s consultation on this topic, early in 2020, was solely about traveller sites. It asked about four proposals and invited alternative suggestions. Indeed many organisations wrote in with less draconian, less offensive proposals. Oddly, the consultation site says they are still analysing the feedback and will post a document sometime—oddly, since it is now ten months since the consultation ended and the new laws are already going through parliament. Priti Patel is very keen on this new law. Naturally, we should be extremely concerned. But about what in particular?

The consultation listed four things: 

  1. allowing police to direct travellers to sites in a different local authority area

  2. disallowing any return to the same place within 12 months (increased from three)

  3. police can target encampments of just two vehicles or more, (not six or more, as now)

  4. police permitted to remove encampments from the public highway. 

In reality, however, the criminalisation parts of the law are far more worrying than these things they consulted on: worrying partly for adding protections for wealthy property-owners, at the expense of marginalised communities whose lifestyle and values challenge expectations normalised and increasingly institutionalised in the UK—with the additional threat now that some marginalised communities may find themselves criminalised simply for following their traditional way of life, regardless of whether they cause any damage. History easily reveals that when land is enclosed it is always to exclude the poor and benefit the rich, and that when the few have more goods than they need, they no longer share them with the ones they excluded but typically squander them on unsustainable lifestyles. So we should worry for the traveller communities, already among the least able to access protection under the law.

But in addition it is worrying for some others. I don’t particularly mean those of us who love to walk, ride, swim or climb in the open countryside, though some have worried whether the freedom to roam might be threatened. Some Conservatives are also country-lovers, and it looks as though the legislation is supposed, at least in principle, to preserve our outdoor pursuits, providing we don’t spoil things. Maybe wild camping (if you refuse to leave when asked) may technically be unlawful, but people genuinely out on foot, to explore the countryside, without camper vehicles, pitching camp on their way are unlikely to be targeted. ‘Unlikely’, is, of course, not entirely satisfactory, if a harmless activity has become technically an offence.

What worries me most, however, as an environmental campaigner, is the aspect that is receiving least attention: namely the obstacle that this legislation throws in the way of peaceful protest against threats to the countryside, peace and human rights. Think of Greenham Common, the HS2 protests, camps at immigration detention centres, protests at airports, the Occupy London camp, the XR occupations, and so on. Planting ourselves in the way, occupying, obstructing: these are a key part of getting our message out, into the media and into people’s minds. Preventing the establishment from getting away with doing the things it wants: this is how we make everyone stop and wonder why the establishment ever wanted to do that, given how bad it is.

The Covid lockdown moment is clever timing for this action against protest occupations. It will look uncontroversial, because such protests are mostly not happening right now. In future we’ll find ourselves in court just for being there. Going to court (and preferably getting let off, by a judge who sees that the law is topsy-turvy) is a way to capture attention. But nevertheless such prosecutions will be topsy-turvy. Because the criminals are the ones engaged in ecocide, and in deporting asylum seekers and so on. And prosecuting those who say so is just what we would expect of this Government, and of Priti Patel in particular: a justice system that pretends to preserve law and order, but actually protects and promotes the practices that destroy people and the planet.