Forgive us our trespasses

Protests camps have been a constant feature of transport and climate campaigning since 1992 when the Dongas Tribe set up a protest camp against the M3 motorway at Twyford Down in the South Downs. In 1993, at the M11 protest in London, the courts agreed with protesters that a tree house was a ‘dwelling’ and therefore the landowner had to obtain a Court Order to lawfully evict the treehouse dwellers. After that whole ‘villages’ of treehouses proliferated at anti-roads protest camps in Newcastle, Bath, Glasgow, Lancashire, Devon and Newbury, often connected together with extensive networks of aerial walkways.

Over time, these camps and their defences became ever more elaborate with networks of tunnels also being built.  This made the task of evicting the protesters more complex and more costly. Since the 1990s roads protests, camps have continued to flourish at campaigns against aviation expansion, quarrying, fracking, and HS2. However, the right to peaceful protest against large infrastructure projects could be under threat.

In England and Wales trespass is a matter of civil law, not the criminal law. It is a private dispute between the landowner and the trespasser: the landowner must apply to the courts, not the police, for an eviction order to remove the trespassers. It means that protesters are not automatically criminalised for their act of rebellion.

However, the Government are proposing to rewrite the law on trespass, to prevent travellers and gypsies camping without permission from landowners, changing it from a civil to a criminal offence. The Conservative Party pledged in its 2019 election manifesto to “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.

This law change is clearly aimed at the travelling community who are often seen as troublesome when they camp on public spaces, particularly in urban areas, normally because of the lack of authorised sites for them to use. However, it is not difficult to see how this new law could also be used against protest camps. Previous legislation, despite Government assurances to the contrary, has often been used against peaceful protest, so is likely to happen again if these new laws are passed. For a Government keen on big new infrastructure, particularly if it backs a big climate busting road building programme, a clamp down on meaningful protest might be quite convenient.

However, this would have a chilling effect on democracy and civil society and would seriously inhibit the public’s ability to effectively protest against things they disagree with as a matter of conscience. It would be a serious restriction on our democratic freedoms, especially when so many legitimate ways of protesting have already been closed down.

Protest is inconvenient and disruptive by its very nature, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong or should be criminalised. Asking awkward questions and challenging Government assertions is an important part of democracy. Using “intentional trespass” laws to gag meaningful protest would be dangerous way forward. We would urge people to find the time to stand up for these important rights.

Please respond to the Government’s consultation which closes at 11:59pm, Wednesday, 4 March, 2020 and let them know what you think.


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