Leading Article: Making the innocent into enemies of the state

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY'S demonstration in London against the Government's Criminal Justice Bill is likely to be taken far less seriously than the objections raised in the House of Lords to other parts of the proposed legislation. Yet of the Bill's many faults, the turning of trespass into a criminal offence - which prompted yesterday's gathering - is probably the most glaring.

Many owners of land or buildings are understandably frustrated to see travellers, ravers and squatters enter their property and wreak havoc with impunity. The wreckers make an especially attractive target to a government whose Home Secretary is looking for an issue to divert attention from his own shortcomings.

But the solution to the problem is not to abolish the long-standing British legal principle that trespass is a civil rather than a criminal matter. Less draconian measures, such as better policing and speeding up the issue of injunctions and warrants through the courts, could achieve the same objective as easily.

The danger with criminalising trespass is that it closes off an avenue of peaceful protest that ought to remain open in a civilised and free society. Many people disagree with protesters who have obstructed the building of new roads by chaining themselves to trees. But the same people would also accept that these actions, and others like them, are a form of civil disobedience that provides a valuable outlet for discontents that cannot be properly aired in a Parliament dominated by a single party for 15 years, and that the nuisance caused by such protesters is not nearly grave enough to merit a prison sentence.

To make matters worse, the Bill would force the police to take sides against protesters. Its provisions are so widely drawn that individual officers would have the discretion to declare almost any public gathering an 'assembly of trespassers', after which it would be a criminal offence to ignore a police order to leave. It is to the credit of the Police Federation that it, too, opposes the measure.

A prudent government would listen to the advice of members of the Ramblers Association and the National Trust, and beat a tactical retreat. Sadly, the Home Secretary seems set to do the opposite and to turn large numbers of honest, law- abiding citizens into enemies of the state.