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What are unauthorised encampments?

Unauthorised encampments occur when trespassers occupy land belonging to private landowners or public authorities. The term is associated Gypsy and Traveller sites.

As at January 2020, 3% of Gypsy and Traveller caravans in England were on unauthorised encampments (694 caravans). 419 of those caravans were on sites “not tolerated” and 275 were on tolerated sites.

Public order powers

Sections 61-62E, Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 provides the police with powers to direct those in unauthorised encampments to leave land based on their behaviour.

Section 61 allows senior officers to direct those in an unauthorised encampment to leave land if:

  • their encampment consists of six or more vehicles; or,
  • the landowner has taken reasonable steps to ask them to move and they have caused damage to the land/ property or have used threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour to the landowner, their family or employees.

Section 62A of the 1994 Act allows a senior officer to direct those in an unauthorised encampment to leave land if:

  • their encampment consists of at least one vehicle and caravan,
  • the landowner has asked the police to move the encampment; and,
  • the local authority can provide a suitable pitch for the caravans elsewhere within their local authority area.

Failure to comply with a direction issued by the police under section 61 or 62A of the 1994 Act is an offence. It is also an offence for someone who has been issued a direction to return to the relevant site within three months. Those convicted of these offences can be imprisoned for up to three months or fined. The police also have powers under section 62 and 62C, of the 1994 Act to seize their vehicles.

Use of police powers

The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC- the coordinating body for UK police forces) has issued operational guidance on policing unauthorised encampments. This guidance has been agreed by all chief officer’s in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is kept under review by the NPPC’s Diversity, Equality & Inclusion Coordination Committee.

The guidance emphasises (as is standard for police powers) that officers must consider the human rights and Equalities Act 2010 protections of those in unauthorised encampments. It says the “mere presence of an encampment without any aggravating factors should not normally create an expectation that police will use eviction powers”. It says the police should “consider becoming involved” in the removal of unauthorised encampments” when: 

  • Local amenities (for example parks, school fields and village greens) are affected.
  • There is a “significant” impact on the environment.
  • There is local disruption to the economy. For example, the encampment is on a shopping centre car park, industrial estate or agricultural land.
  • The behaviour of those in the encampment causes a “significant disruption to the local community”.
  • There is a danger to life. For example, the encampment is on a motorway.
  • There is a need to take action to prevent anti-social behaviour.

Working with local authorities

The NPCC guidance says:

The lead role for decision making should rest with the local authority and the use of police powers should not normally be considered as a first response.

It says officers should make an early site visit to a new unauthorised development with a representative from the local authorities to assess what action is required. It also says forces should develop ‘Joint Agency Protocols’ with local authorities (and other partners) for the management of unauthorised encampments.

Government proposals for reform

Part 4 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill would amend the provisions in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (CJPOA) relating to unauthorised encampments. Part 4 of the Bill would:

  • create a new offence of “residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle”; and
  • amend the existing police powers in the 1994 Act to broaden when they can be used.

The Library’s briefing on Part 3 and 4 of the PCSC Bill provides a detailed discussion of the proposals.

The Government consulted on similar proposals in their Strengthening police powers to tackle unauthorised encampments consultation before introducing legislation to Parliament. The Government’s consultation response sets out its thinking behind the proposals in the Bill. It says the Bill “will provide the police with sufficient powers to enforce quickly and effectively against a range of harms resulting from unauthorised encampments.” It says the proposals are intended “to prevent the harms caused by unauthorised encampments from occurring in the first instance.”

Are the Government proposing to criminalise trespass?

The PCSC Bill would not criminalise trespass. Instead, it is designed to criminalise the act of trespassing when making an unauthorised encampment. The Bill’s explanatory notes says “the provisions do not capture ramblers and those who wish to enjoy the countryside” because to commit the offence you must be “residing in or intending to reside in, or with, a vehicle”.

As discussed above, failure to comply with a police direction to leave land occupied as part of an unauthorised encampment is already a criminal offence.

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