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Those Who Trespass Against Us

January 20, 2020 - 16:00 -- Admin

This proposed
new law would make us strangers in our own nation, by criminalising trespass.

By George
Monbiot, published in the Guardian 15th January 2020

Every
government of the past 30 years has promised freedom, and every government has
taken it away. The general “freedom” they proclaim turns out to mean freedom
for billionaires, the City of London, and the tax-avoiding, labour-exploiting,
planet-poisoning chancers whose liberty is our captivity.
Meanwhile, through further restrictions on housing, benefits, immigration,
protest and dissent, they have snatched freedom from those who need it most.

Boris
Johnson’s government intends to sustain this ignoble tradition. Its consultation document on
unauthorised encampments proposes to criminalise the lives of some
of Britain’s most vulnerable and persecuted groups. By enabling the police to
confiscate the homes of “anyone whom they suspect to be trespassing on land
with the purpose of residing on it”, it leaves Gypsies, Romanis and Travellers
with nowhere to stop.

Even the
police oppose this legislative cleansing: 75% of police forces and police
commissioners believe that existing powers are sufficient to
address any harmful behaviour by members of these groups. The government’s
sweeping proposals would amount to collective punishment. This is Conservatism
at its cruellest and meanest.

But when
you examine the proposals more closely, you begin to realise that they don’t
stop at the persecution of travelling peoples. The way the questions are framed
could enable the government to go much further than the official purpose of the
consultation, potentially launching one of the most severe restrictions on
general freedom in the modern era.

The
consultation is everything such exercises are not supposed to be. It is
confusing and heavily slanted. It is pitched in such a way that, however you
might answer the questions, you are forced to agree with a profoundly illiberal
idea.

For
example, the first question asks, “To what extent do you agree or disagree that
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?”. It’s a perfect
trap. If you agree, you consent to the curtailment of the traditional rights
and lives of Romani and Travellers. If you disagree, you consent to the criminalisation
of something much wider, which, throughout English history, has been a civil matter: trespass
on land.

Is this
the intention? To sneak in, under the cloak of a populist attack on a small
minority, the criminalisation of walking on the great majority of England’s
land? We have a Parliament in which, in both houses, landowners are massively
over-represented. We have a wider political and economic system in which
ancient, landed power still carries immense weight. There is
nothing some landowners would like more than to set the police on those who
dare to venture into their vast estates. And there is nothing which tells us
more clearly that freedom for one is captivity for another.

Even while
it remains a civil matter, the tort of trespass informs us that we are strangers
in our own nation, unwelcome on the great majority of its acres. This is why
Scotland introduced its comprehensive right to roam, enabling people to venture
onto almost all uncultivated land, except
gardens, sports grounds and the land immediately surrounding houses, schools
and other buildings. Despite dire predictions, it works well, with scarcely any conflict. The
Scottish government, and the campaigners who pressed for this reform, see
access as an essential component of citizenship. When you are treated as a
trespasser across most of your nation, the message you receive is that you
don’t belong.

To
criminalise trespass would be to make strangers of us all. The police become
internal border guards, defending the fabric of the nation from us, the alien
horde. In most parts of the country, this will leave us fenced into tiny areas.
The right to roam in England extends to just ten percent of the nation,
generally far from where most people live. Some counties have only pocket
handkerchiefs of land where we may freely venture.

To be
adventurous in many parts of Britain, to explore more than a few glorified dog
toilets, is to trespass. To stick to the footpaths and the pockets of access
land is, for many of us, to feel unbearably trapped. Already we must tiptoe
across our nation, trying to remain unseen. Does the government now seek to
criminalise us? As the same, confusing framing applies to several of the
questions in the consultation, it seems unlikely to be accidental. The Conservative manifesto stated, without
qualification, “we will make intentional trespass a criminal offence”.

The harder
you look, the more disguised powers appear to be lodged in this consultation.
Even if new trespass laws are aimed only at those residing on land, they will
hit not only Gypsies, Romani and Travellers, but also rough sleepers. David
Cameron’s government criminalised squatting in empty
homes. This too was previously a civil matter. Thousands of homeless people
found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Some have been imprisoned for using
property abandoned by its owners. Johnson’s government would do the same to people
living in tents or bivvy bags. There will be nowhere to turn.

Any new
laws are also likely to be used against protesters. We’ve seen how previous
legislation – such as the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, the 1997 Protection from
Harassment Act, the 2000 Terrorism Act and the 2005 Serious Organised Crime and
Police Act – has been immediately deployed against peaceful protest, in some
cases after the government promised that it would not be used for this
purpose. In view of the statements this week by the
Home Secretary, Priti Patel, seeking to justify Extinction Rebellion’s
temporary inclusion on a list of
extremist ideologies, we cannot trust her to protect our rights to dissent.
People seeking to reside on land for the purposes of protest, as anti-fracking
and anti-roads campaigners have done to great effect, are likely to be
criminalised from the outset.

But in
casting the illiberal net so wide, the government might accidentally have
created a coalition. Rather than allowing Romani, Travellers and homeless
people to be picked off, all those of us who fear the criminalisation of
trespass should join forces with them, protecting their rights while we defend
our own. In responding to the consultation, which closes on March 4, we should
refuse to be trapped in the government’s framing. Instead of agreeing or
disagreeing with its proposals, we should state under every confusing question
that we reject all attempts to criminalise trespass.

History shows that attacks on general freedoms often begin with an attack on the freedom of a minority. It teaches us that we should never allow a government to divide and rule. An attack on one is an attack on all.

www.monbiot.com