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Guest blog: Silence of the Creaking Wagons – Gypsies, Travellers and the Criminalisation of Trespass

Sami McLaren, Senior Communications & Campaigns Officer

Chris McDonagh, Campaigns Officer

In what has become par for the course of successive Governments, the current Government, its Home Office and in parts the Opposition have set Gypsy, Traveller and nomadic communities in their sights once again.

The Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 (PCSC) is a 300-page proposal to overhaul the Criminal Justice System. The content ranges from guidance on sentencing child killers to tackling ‘disruptive protests’ to stripping away the homes of Gypsy and Traveller people for the crime of stopping somewhere they shouldn’t have.

There are far more qualified people available to discuss just how inadequate trying to tackle social issues and abhorrent crimes in one fell swoop is, so this blog will discuss just Part 4; the criminalisation of trespass and the strengthening of police powers against Gypsy and Traveller people. No one is arguing against harsher sentencing for those convicted of the worst crimes.

In plain speak, Part 4 will see ‘trespass’ change from a civil to a criminal offense. This means that when you trespass with intent to reside, you will be treated as a criminal. Even if you have nowhere else to go.

Despite the Police calling for more sites and not powers (repeatedly) the Home Office has chosen to ham-fistedly plow ahead with its plans, regardless of what the experts may say.

If this Bill becomes law, then those living nomadically by choice or by chance will face having their homes seized, time in prison and/or a fine of up to £2500.

Of course, Part 4 focuses only on those who trespass with intent to reside. But when you consider that a conservative estimate of over 1690 households are currently waiting for a pitch on sites in England, you can safely assume that a lot of people will fall foul of the law-to-be. 

Living nomadically isn’t always a choice. For the United Kingdom’s Romany Gypsy and Irish Traveller communities, it is a culturally important way of life. The knock-on effects of not being able to live as close to a nomadic way of life as possible are staggering and range from depression to family breakdown to social detachment.

As far-fetched as it might seem, the family parked up in the local car park would very much like a place where they can exercise their right to a private family life. It is a not a mutually exclusive state of affairs – as the previous 500 years have shown, there are ways where a nomadic way of life can co-exist with the right to private property.

Negotiated Stopping is one of these ways, harking back to a bygone era of the questionably-named “gentlemen’s agreements. In very simple terms, Negotiated Stopping is an arrangement between those living on roadside camps and a Local Authority. The terms can vary but will usually address correct waste disposal, access to water and sanitation and other things which can be described as ‘good neighbourliness’.

Negotiated Stopping doesn’t just help nomadic people access safe stopping places – it also produces benefits and ultimately saves money for local authorities.

However, criminalising trespass will undoubtedly bring people in direct confrontation with the law, potentially further worsening the overrepresentation of Gypsy and Traveller people in prison.

What then becomes of those who fall foul of the new law? More people in prison, more families torn apart, more people left on the roadside to pick up the pieces, more innocent children possibly ending up in the care sector and forced to assimilate into a lifestyle they have never known. This is without even beginning to discuss the after-effects of gaining a criminal record.

If that’s not enough, Gypsy and Traveller people have a life expectancy of 10-25 years lower than the general population and are six times more likely to die by suicide. It beggars belief that instead of providing a pathway to improve the dire outcomes of these communities, we are confronted with a Government mandate based on racism and discrimination.

Since the Bill was proposed we have witnessed a huge increase of anti-Gypsy and Traveller hate, online and in real life. The Bill has made attacking these communities acceptable. It legitimises the hate.

But, the PCSC Bill isn’t a flare-up of isolated violence. It is the culmination of decades and centuries of crackdowns and strong-arming against Britain’s nomadic communities, from the ‘Egyptians Act 1530’ to the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ to the Dale Farm evictions.

Coupled with the above is the creeping eradication of site provision. The now infamous Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 repealed the duty placed on councils by the Caravan Sites Act 1968 to provide sites for Gypsy and Traveller communities. Just between 2010 and 2020, there has been an 8.4% decrease in local authority pitches.

The decades-long decline of site provision coupled with a law that screams ‘you’re not welcome here’ begs the question; if Gypsy and Traveller people can’t be here but also can’t go there… where do we go?

Gypsy and Traveller communities already face strikingly worrying outcomes in health, education, accommodation and experience of hate crimes. But we need to be honest and say it how it is; the PCSC Bill and its criminalisation of trespass will not eradicate these communities nor the nomadic way of life.

Gypsy and Traveller communities know what it means to be resilient. Life on the road is not easy, nor for the faint-hearted. Petrol bombs landing on your doorstep from hostile locals, national papers relentlessly targeting you, your family and your culture, politicians using your identity as a political football… The list goes on.

It’s not a life without its challenges, but it is the Gypsy, Traveller and nomadic way of life. As a modern society, we should seek to support those facing the biggest challenges, not kick them into the pyre. Those at the helm should ensure that everyone everywhere has equal access to opportunity, not pit one against the other in pursuit of power.

As an old Irish Traveller saying goes, “We are born to the road, and the road is our home”.

Sami McLaren, Senior Communications and Campaigns Officer at Friends, Families and Travellers

Chris McDonagh, Campaigns Officer at Friends, Families and Travellers and a member of the Irish Traveller community.