The police bill criminalizes Gypsy and Traveller Families
The controversial policing legislation currently making its way through the UK Parliament has caused controversy due to its draconian plans for expanding police powers and curbing protests. With the criminalization of trespass, this bill will have a negative impact on Gypsy families and Travellers.
Part four of the bill, in its current form, changes the act of trespassing to a criminal offense and gives Police additional powers to deal with roadside campers. People who live in roadside camps may face prison time, a fine of up to PS2,500, or losing their homes. This will have serious consequences for Gypsy groups and Travellers, who are already among the most marginalized in England and Wales.
Advocates and campaigning groups have asked for part four to be scrapped. The Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe wrote to members of Parliament and the House of Lords in opposition to the measures. It is opposed by the Police. The main reason for unauthorized encampments, according to all of them, is the lack of suitable sites. People don’t have any other choice.
Since the 1960s, Gypsies and Travellers have been subjected to legislation that aims to control or eradicate nomadism and push the community towards brick-and-mortar homes. No government has gone so far as to criminalize nomadic lifestyles as the one in the policing act. This was a turning point in the erosion of Gypsy and Travellers’ right to nomadic life.
Criminalizing trespass affects several “unfixed groups,” such as activists, squatters, and rough sleepers. Our research reveals that the bill targets Gypsies, Travellers, and Travellers with racist stereotypes. We analyzed the consultation process of the government, which was used in the parliamentary debates as evidence to support criminalizing trespass.
Consultation frames Gypsies and Travellers as the problem right from the start. Encampments are associated with antisocial behavior and stereotypes about crime. The talk also selectively prioritizes racist responses by anonymous individuals. The discussion largely ignores more informed submissions by the Police, charities, and those who work with Gypsies or Travellers every day.
The Gypsies, Travellers, and their encampments are portrayed as a threat to property, which trumps the right to travel. The reality of decades-long under-provisioning of sites that has led to unauthorized encampments is not taken into consideration, nor is the anti-Gypsy and Traveller prejudice a major barrier to site development. The consultation response is telling in that it states that criminalization can be “positive on the long-term” because it will discourage people “from choosing a traveling lifestyle to the benefit for children.”
A better solution
Criminalization makes little sense. This will always lead to more conflict, slander, and homelessness, as well as costly evictions. There is an alternative, which has been proven to be cost-effective and can help foster better relationships between Gypsies or Travellers who are nomads and their temporary neighbors.
The “negotiated stop” is an agreement made between families living along the road, their neighbors, and the local authority about the acceptable usage of space (usually 28 days). The local authority will provide the same infrastructure as it would to any other citizen, including sewerage (portaloos), bins, and water access, where possible.
A message from Dale Farm. Dale Farm was the largest Traveller settlement in the UK before hundreds of residents had to be evicted by 2011. Allsorts Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo
This approach was pioneered by the Gypsy and Traveller organization Leeds Gate. The local authority and the police force are saving around PS200,000 per annum. Gypsy and Traveller groups and local authorities are developing similar initiatives in London and elsewhere in the UK.
This approach has improved relations between neighbors, police, and local authorities. The provision of basic amenities reduces tensions around encampments, especially those involving rubbish and waste. These complaints make up the overwhelming majority. Families can remain in their current location for a long time, allowing them to gain access to education, healthcare, and employment, improving their quality of life. These suggestions are neither radical nor expensive to implement.
The criminalization of trespass only reinforces stereotypes that Gypsies, Travellers, and other “outsiders” are dangerous. Negotiated stopping is a more inclusive, effective, and cost-effective solution than evictions.
In a 2019 high court decision against injunctions to evict families, it was stated that “merely pushing families from one area to another is not a good solution.” Leeds Gate believes that the government must acknowledge the rights of families to travel and that evictions can be harmful.