openDemocracyUK: Feature

UK Traveller communities fear ‘cultural annihilation’ over upcoming trespass laws

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people face imprisonment or hefty fines under new England and Wales Police Bill that ‘criminalises’ nomadic life

Blyth Brentnall
25 January 2022, 11.33am
GRT campaigners at a protest against the Police Bill, 2021

Peers will tonight vote for the final time on legislation that has been described as “cultural annihilation” for the UK’s Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities.

The government has been accused of criminalising nomadic lifestyles in new trespassing laws introduced in Part 4 of its flagship Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The Lords last week voted down a series of protest restrictions introduced into the bill at the last minute, but the section that most worries GRT people passed unhindered.

Under the planned legislation, an estimated 10,000 people from GRT communities in England and Wales could face eviction for parking their vehicles on roadsides and unauthorised land if they are deemed to have caused ‘significant disruption’. Yet there is a national shortage of sites and a declining number of new ones, despite the number of Traveller caravans rising.

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Violet Cannon, a Romany Gypsy and the chief executive of York Travellers Trust, explained: “Councils are really reluctant to build any new pitches or grant planning permission for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller caravan sites. So a large proportion of three ethnic minorities is officially homeless. And the government's response is to make them criminals.”

The bill would change trespassing from a non-arrestable civil offence to a criminal one with harsh sentences. If it comes into force, a land occupier or their ‘representative’ could call the police to evict those present and seize their vehicles if they have caused ‘significant harm, disruption or distress’. Guilty verdicts in court would result in fines of up to £2,500 and imprisonment for up to three months.

“The aim of the bill is clearly to take away people's homes, their pets and property, imprisoning them and leaving their children parentless, in order to forcibly assimilate them into settled culture,” said Traveller Ann Marie Evans. “For us, that is just the first step of cultural annihilation.”

The Home Office denies that the proposed law is discriminatory.

But Evans says the legislation would leave “children parentless, in order to forcibly assimilate them into settled culture”. “For us,” she added, “that is just the first step of cultural annihilation.”

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In a vote in the Lords last month, the Lib Dems and Greens opposed Part 4 of the bill, but Labour whipped its peers to abstain, meaning the parts of the bill that could most harm GRT communities passed unchanged. Protections for GRT people, which would have ensured police officers could evict mobile-home dwellers only if there were alternative sites available nearby, had been backed by Labour but failed to get through by a single vote.

Gypsy Traveller Lynne Tammi, who works in human rights, reiterated: “The bill sets out to criminalise nomadism. It’s a violation of human rights and breaches the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by ensuring children and young people no longer have the ability to practice their culture and traditions.”

These communities already suffer from abusive policing and imprisonment, which they expect to worsen under the bill. People from GRT backgrounds represent one in 20 inmates in English and Welsh prisons, despite making up only 0.1% of the countries’ populations.

Sherrie Smith is a Romany Gypsy and co-founder of GRT campaign group Drive To Survive. She worked for an organisation that launched a system to monitor hate crime, Report Racism GRT, in 2016. Through her work, she has heard many accounts revealing the extent of discriminatory policing of her community.

She told openDemocracy how, 18 months ago, she learnt of a woman who was violently arrested despite being seven months pregnant. Police pinned her to the ground, Smith said, causing her to have a fit, only to later release her without charge.

“I’ve seen the worst of how Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people are treated by police in the UK,” she added. “They don’t take proportionate measures for people who are innocent and this is standard practice in different areas of the country. Under this bill, policing will ensure our total demonisation as a race.”

Others have had similar experiences, including Irish Traveller Chris McDonagh, who was beaten while in police custody about 15 years ago. He has since developed hyperacusis, a condition that makes him overly sensitive to sound in one ear, which he believes was caused by having been punched in the head by a duty officer.

McDonagh said: “This is a blatantly racist law. Although not all police are against us, this is going to give officers who are prejudiced towards us the power to do anything they feel like.”

Gyp Drive2Survive
Sherrie Smith, Drive2Survive founder, with other activists at an anti-Police Bill protest, July 2021

Community members have additional concerns about the health impact of exacerbated discrimination, which has been linked to suicides among GRT people.

Martin Gallagher, an Irish Traveller and PhD candidate at Northumbria University, predicted: “Suicides are going to rise as mental health worsens due to kids being taken from their parents and homes confiscated, off the back of this bill.”

Scotland and Northern Ireland have independent criminal justice systems, making these countries exempt from Part 4. Nomadic people, however, often travel across borders.

“It still impacts us in Scotland and Northern Ireland because Gypsies and Travellers have families in England and Wales so they shift back and forth, going to horse fairs and religious gatherings,” explained Tammi, who currently resides in Scotland.

After its third reading in the House of Lords, the bill will return to the House of Commons where MPs will review the Lords’ amendments to other parts of the bill. The bill can pass back and forth between the two houses until there is agreement on its various clauses.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We recognise that the vast majority of Travellers are law-abiding and we respect their right to follow a nomadic way of life, in line with their cultural heritage and to suggest the legislation is discriminatory is false.

“Unauthorised encampments can cause misery to those who live nearby, with excessive noise and littering, and people unable to access their land. We are giving the police the powers they need to tackle this problem.

“The conditions of the offence are clear – if people do not commit significant harms and if they leave when asked to by the police or landowner, they will not risk having their vehicle seized. There are measures in place for local authorities to provide authorised sites for Travellers to reside on.”

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