Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and the police. Photo: Flickr/Number 10 Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and the police. Photo: Flickr/Number 10

The government consultation aiming to criminalise the lives of some of Britain’s most vulnerable and persecuted groups is disgraceful and must be resisted by us all, writes Norbert Lawrie

“Strengthening Police Powers To Tackle Unauthorised Encampments” is the title of the consultation on measures that the government are now planning to introduce in the very near future. It holds very serious implications and further erodes civil liberties as well as being a particularly nasty and disgusting attack on travelling communities and 23,726 caravans in England and Wales.

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel’s consultation document 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”, Gypsies, Roma and Travellers will be left with nowhere to stop and without a home.

The Government has made plans which could stamp out the travelling way of life and make things that much tougher for roadside families.

The Government plans to:

  • Make ‘trespass when setting up an unauthorised encampment a crime’ – this means they could have a trailer taken, and a person could be sent to prison, fined or both.
  • Give the police powers to move on anyone who stops alongside or on the road.
  • Lower the number of vehicles needed to be involved in an “unauthorised encampment” to two vehicles, instead of six. A car and a van would count as two vehicles.
  • Give the police new powers to force travellers to a transit site in another county and they will be able to ban travellers for one year instead of three months.

These are currently civil matters, but if the government succeeds in amending the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act with these measures, it would make them criminal matters.

Tiny minority

Just 10% of Gypsies and Travellers are living in caravans on the roadside because of the shortage of legal places to stop, yet parliamentarians’ language overwhelmingly heaps blame on Gypsies and Travellers for the systemic failures which make this tiny minority homeless.

Romany Gypsies, Irish Travellers, Scottish and Welsh Gypsy Travellers are all defined ethnic groups and entitled to protection from discrimination under equality legislation. Given the scale of hostility and the impact of this on an already marginalised group and on community relations, MPs have refused to act responsibly on this sensitive matter and moderate their hostile language discussing Gypsies and Travellers in Parliament.

Mole Valley MP Sir Paul Beresford opened an Adjournment Debate in the last parliament by saying: “We’re now in what we call the summer Traveller season, it’s like a disease.”

Sir Paul said that his part of Surrey was “attractive to Travellers from afar, and many of those come with a distinct Irish accent”.

Conservative Manifesto

The Conservative manifesto in the last election stated:

“We will 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.”

In Labour-Tory marginals like Crewe and Nantwich, the Conservative candidate Dr Keiran Mullan spent hundreds of pounds promoting two separate videos on Facebook in which he criticises the local Gypsy and Traveller community for stopping in a park in Nantwich.

And just a flavour not to savour of this new Tory intake from Dr Mullan’s website:

“I work as a doctor in A&E and on projects aimed at improving the whole of the NHS. I spent four years as a school governor and four years as a volunteer policeman (good preparation for the rough and tumble of politics!) so I have good experience and understanding of public services. I know what it is like to be on the front line.”

The Express and Star in Wolverhampton reported that two parliamentary candidates supported a fundraiser for a fight against a proposed Travellers site.

Conservative Stuart Anderson now an MP dressed up as Santa Clause and was photographed with Labour’s Eleanor Smith attending the event.

Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, singled out Travellers in bullet points about crime on his campaign materials. In his leaflet, Gove pledged “cracking down on crime, dealing with anti-social behaviour, theft, and burglary, and illegal Traveller incursions”.

Whilst the emphasis is put on the problems caused by illegal sites and the excess numbers who are stopping on authorised sites, the widespread perception is of Gypsies and Travellers as people who live outside of the constraints which the settled community are bound by, who do not contribute in work or taxes but commit crime, spoil the environment with their rubbish and generally cause trouble by their very presence in an area.

Gypsies and Travellers are much like other people; most of them do work, though not necessarily in full-time wage labour, and they do pay taxes.

Most of the accusations regarding criminal behaviour are unsubstantiated and crime levels among Gypsies and Travellers are similar to that of the rest of society. Ironically, many thousands of non-Gypsies choose to take caravan and camping holidays, and cook meals in their gardens; some dump their old sofas and other rubbish down the cul-de-sac and in country lanes.

Inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers

Gypsies have maintained their identity through many centuries of prejudice and discrimination.

Gypsies and Travellers experience some of the worst outcomes of any group, across a wide range of social indicators. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has published a number of reports highlighting the multiple inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers. An EHRC review in 2015 concluded that the life chances of Gypsies and Travellers had declined since the Commission’s previous review in 2010. The contributory factors are complex and often interrelated, but may include deprivation, social exclusion and discrimination.

We should never forget when Hitler started his ethnic cleansing of the Gypsies he inherited elaborate discriminatory legislation specifically designed to keep the Gypsies away. Germany had anti-Gypsy laws since the end of the 19th century. During the early days of Nazism, existing anti-Gypsy measures were strengthened and led to mass sterilisation and murder.

To kill two birds or more with one stone

Any new legislation based upon the propositions contained in the consultation would in effect be used against other sections of the population – not only Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, but also rough sleepers and homeless people and are also likely to be used against protesters, particularly environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion and protest camps against fracking. As the old adage goes, ‘an attack against one is an attack against all’.

The consultation ends on Wednesday 4 MarchLiberty and Friends, Families and Travellers have prepared templates for responses and I urge everyone to flood the consultation with replies. It only takes a few minutes of your time to not only to defend Gypsies, Roma and the Travelling community but all of our civil liberties.

Norbert Lawrie

Norbert Lawrie is a former homeless advice worker and campaigner of many years standing. He has been an executive member of CHAR the former campaign for single homeless people, and has been instrumental in gaining council tenancies for hundreds of homeless people including children living in hostel accommodation. Norbert maintains an ongoing relationship with the London street homeless and the squatting movement.