Don’t criminalise trespass!

Image: A welcoming property near Regent’s Park, London.

Please sign the petition to stop the criminalisation of trespass here.

*UPDATE 26th August 2020: Today the petition passed the 100,000 signature threshold needed to guarantee a debate in Parliament – huge thankyou to everyone who signed and shared! Onwards to the debate.*

Trespassers cannot, in fact, be prosecuted – at least, not yet. Despite the confident words on a thousand intimidating signs on the outskirts of large estates, trespass is something you can be sued for by a landowner, but not prosecuted for by the state. That’s because trespass is a civil offence, not a criminal one – and has been for a thousand years.

But perhaps not for much longer. The Government has proposed criminalising trespass – both in a Home Office consultation launched by Priti Patel last November, and in the Conservative manifesto during last year’s General Election campaign. The latter stated, without qualification: “We will make intentional trespass a criminal offence”.

The Home Office consultation, which focused on ‘Strengthening police powers to tackle unauthorised encampments’ by Travellers, also asked whether “knowingly entering land without the landowner’s permission should only be made a criminal offence if it is for the purpose of residing on it” (my emphasis), the ‘only’ suggesting that Ministers would gladly criminalise other kinds of trespass if they could get away with it.

Either way, criminalising trespass with intent to reside on the land would not only massively affect Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities (who are already marginalised and subjected to daily prejudice); it would also criminalise protest camps (think of all the peaceful camps set up to oppose fracking, coal power stations and roads in recent decades), and make criminals out of wild campers. Criminalising trespass outright, as the Conservative manifesto suggests, could impact ramblers, wild swimmers, kayakers, climbers, mountain bikers and any member of the public who dared stray from the path. Fear of criminalisation may even deter amateur naturalists from carrying out wildlife surveys, as this botanist warns.

If any of this concerns you – please sign and share my petition to stop the criminalisation of trespass.

Criminalising trespass isn’t just draconian, it’s completely unnecessary. Landowners who wish to sue trespassers can already do so via the courts. Police forces have stated they don’t want or need any additional powers to deal with unauthorised encampments.

Access to nature is vital for everyone’s physical and mental health – something lockdown demonstrated vividly. This year’s exceptional spring, combined with the coronavirus regulations, meant many people stopped to observe and experience nature in ways they hadn’t since childhood. With restrictions on overseas travel, many more people have been enjoying their summer holidays in the British countryside. Sales of camping equipment have soared; British Canoeing has seen a 40% jump in membership; and National Parks have seen huge numbers of visitors from sections of the population who’ve never visited them before.

Criminalising trespass would create a massive chilling effect on visits to the countryside. Many people are already put off visiting rural Britain through unfamiliarity, poor transport links, existing civil trespass laws and a general sense that they don’t belong or aren’t welcome in the countryside. Such feelings are multiplied greatly for Black, Asian and ethnic minority Britons. Anyone who has ever misread a map – or taken an innocent short-cut across a field – and been confronted by an angry landowner, will know that such incidents are off-putting. Imagine how much worse such confrontations would get if trespass becomes a criminal offence, with landowners calling the police on any errant rambler. Imagine how much worse still it would be for Travellers and protestors.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In April this year I started a petition on the Parliamentary petitions website, calling on the Government to halt their plans to criminalise trespass. It’s now reached 58,000 signatures. Every petition that gets 100,000 signatures is considered for debate by MPs in Parliament. But the petition expires on 5th September – a fortnight’s time. 

That’s two weeks to get the remaining 42,000 signatures – so I need all the help you can give me. Please, if you agree, sign and share this petition – send it to friends, neighbours, work colleagues; send them this blog post too, if you feel it’d help persuade them. If you are part of a local group, share it with them; if you belong to a large membership organisation, ask if they can help promote it.

Two weeks to stop the criminalisation of trespass. Let’s do it.

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