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What are unauthorised encampments?

“Unauthorised encampments” occur when trespassers occupy land belonging to private landowners or public authorities without permission. The term is typically associated with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller sites.

As at January 2022, in England there were 515 Traveller caravans reported on unauthorised encampments (ie on land not owned by Travellers). This amounts to 2% of the total number of Traveller caravans recorded.

Police powers to respond to unauthorised encampments

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (CJPO Act) sets out the main police powers to respond to unauthorised encampments.

Part 4 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (PCSC Act) significantly amended the CJPO Act and expanded the powers that police have in relation to unauthorised encampments.

The amended powers came into force for England and Wales on 28 June 2022.

Policing those residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle

Section 60C-E of the CJPO Act provides a criminal offence for “residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle”. For the offence to apply the trespasser must have at least one vehicle with them. The trespasser’s residence or conduct on the land must also have caused (or be likely to cause) significant damage, disruption, destruction, or distress.  

The landowner, someone representing the landowner, or the police can ask those who have met the criteria of this offence to leave the land. If the individual(s) trespassing fails to leave “as soon as reasonably practicable” after being requested to, the police can arrest them. The police can also seize and remove vehicles from those suspected of this offence.

Directing trespassers in unauthorised encampments to leave land

Section 61 of the CJPO Act enables senior officers to direct those in an unauthorised encampment to leave land if they are in an encampment that consists of six or more vehicles; any member of the encampment has “caused damage, disruption or distress”; or their encampment is on (or partly on) a highway.

Section 62A of the CJPO Act also allows a senior officer to direct those in an unauthorised encampment consisting of at least one vehicle and caravan to leave land if the local authority can provide a suitable pitch for the caravans elsewhere within the area.  

Failure to comply with a police direction to leave is an offence. It is also an offence to return to land within twelve months of being directed to leave by the police.

The police can also, under section 62 and 62C of the CJPO Act, seize vehicles from those that they have directed to leave if the individual(s) have failed to remove their vehicles or have attempted to re-enter the land as a trespasser within the prohibited 12-month period.

The use of police powers

Local authorities are the lead agency for responding to unauthorised encampments (with support from the police) and have their own set of powers for this.

Guidance issued by the Natioanal Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) with operational advice for the police (PDF) says that “the mere presence of a group unauthorised encampment without any aggravating factors should not normally create an expectation that police will use eviction powers.”

Reactions to the strengthening of police powers

The National Farmers Union and the Local Government Association both welcomed the strengthening of police powers to respond to unauthorised encampments brought about by the PCSC Act. However, those representing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and human rights advocates, strongly opposed the measures. They have raised concern that new legislative framework for police to respond to unauthorised encampments, criminalises and discriminates against Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities, will negatively impact their health and wellbeing, and put them at greater risk of homelessness. 

Critics have also questioned the effectiveness of the reforms, stating that they will fail to address the lack of authorised site availability for Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities. Several stakeholders have said improving the provision of authorised sites is key to addressing issues and conflicts arising between unauthorised encampments and settled communities.

The Government has acknowledged that there could be “an adverse impact on some members” of Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities. However, it says this needs to be balanced with “the distress that local communities and businesses face as a result of unauthorised encampments”.

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