Sheffield MP Olivia Blake uses words of Peak District campaigner Ethel Haythornthwaite to oppose plans to make trespass a criminal offence

A Sheffield MP used the words of the Yorkshire environmental campaigner who helped found the Peak District National Park as she criticised the Government's plans to make trespass a criminal offence.

Sheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake cited the work of Ethel Haythornthwaite, who founded the group that would go on to become the Friends of the Peak District, during a Westminster Hall debate on trespass.

A petition, which has more than 134,000 signatures, says the Government's manifesto commitment to make intentional trespass a criminal offence is "an extreme, illiberal and unnecessary attack on ancient freedoms".

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Edale, Hope Valley, Peak District, Derbyshire, Feature. Pictured The winding roads from Edale Valley leading up towards Mam Tor, Derbyshire. Pic by James Hardisty

At the moment, trespass is a civil offence, which has meant landowners or local councils usually had to get a court order to evict people who set up camps on private or public land.

But if the law was changed police would be able to order people to move to local authority sites. Campaigners are also worried it could threaten the right to roam.

Ms Blake said the debate led by South Ribble Conservative MP Katherine Fletcher fell between two dates "that are important to my city and my constituency, and which have significance for the whole country".

The first, Saturday April 17, marked the 70th anniversary of the Peak District national park, while Saturday April 24 will be the 89th anniversary of the Kinder Scout mass trespass of 1932.

The MP said: "The foundations of the park were built by my constituent Ethel Haythornthwaite, who was born in 1894.

"After falling in love with the beauty of the countryside surrounding our city, she founded the Sheffield Association for the Protection of Local Countryside, which would later become the Peak District and South Yorkshire branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

"Throughout her life, she directed a host of campaigns to defend the use by everyone of the green spaces in and around Sheffield."

Ms Blake said the Kinder Scout mass trespass was one of many regular trespasses into moorland estates organised by workers from northern industrial towns and cities, such as the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers.

She added: "Before the founding of the national parks, these workers were forced to trespass because moorland estates were privately owned by the landed gentry.

"Their demand was simple: that everyone should be able to access the moors. In 1945, their efforts were recognised when a Government were elected who shared the views not only of Ethel but of the Kinder trespassers as well.

"Ethel was actually appointed to the National Parks Committee and helped the new Government to deliver the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949."

The Labour MP said Ministers wanted to "turn back the clock and make trespass a criminal offence", something which would attack the right to roam but also "the right of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community to live as they wish".

She said: "If the Government were serious about addressing unauthorised encampments, they would increase funding for more legal sites and more places to legally stop, not pass new laws that attack an already persecuted community and force more people into our criminal justice system.

"We should look to extend our right to green spaces, not deter people from accessing our precious countryside, nor should we criminalise those whose culture is based around the right to roam."

She added: "As a Sheffield MP, I am proud to stand on the shoulders of Ethel Haythornthwaite, the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers and the Kinder Scout trespassers in demanding that everyone should enjoy, as Ethel put it, the 'peace, freedom, solitude, excitement' that comes with the escape into the clean air and the gradual return to nature."

Farmers have challenged the UK government to act on its pledges to create a new criminal offence to tackle illegal encampments on private land.

Under current laws, landowners must go through the civil courts to remove people trespassing on their land. The cost of securing an eviction can be expensive and claims for nuisance and fly-tipping can run into thousands of pounds.

As part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 for England and Wales, the Home Office is proposing to give police powers to remove people trespassing on private land.

Those who breach the new rules could face a three-month prison sentence and a fine of up to £2,500. Police will be given powers to seize property, including vehicles, where individuals reside or intend to reside on land with a vehicle.

Responding for the Government during the debate, Policing Minister Kit Malthouse said: "As somebody who represents 220 square miles of beautiful chalk downland in the northern part of Hampshire, I am pleased to be able to say that those who wish to enjoy the countryside, including in my constituency, will not be prevented from doing so by the offence.

"Our proposals, which were included in our manifesto, are aimed squarely at unauthorised encampments. For many of our constituents, and for landowners, those cause damage, destruction or distress, as well as causing significant cost to local authorities.

"Residents often feel helpless as their local amenities are damaged or disrupted, and for some councils, such as in Birmingham in 2016, with £700,000 of clean-up costs, the bills can be huge. I have seen that repeatedly in my own constituency.

"It is only right, then, that the Government seek to protect citizens and strike a balance for those who are adversely affected by unauthorised encampments. The measures that we are introducing in the Bill will give the police the powers to bring an end to the misery caused by some unauthorised encampments.

"The new criminal offence will apply where a person who resides on land with a vehicle causes significant damage, disruption or distress and does not leave when asked to do so. That means that the powers will not apply to people camping in tents in the countryside or to others who inadvertently stray on to private land."