openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Priti Patel’s war on the UK’s last nomads

With its new police bill, the government is trying to criminalise Gypsies and Travellers’ very way of life

Luke Smith
29 March 2021, 2.01pm
A Gypsy/Traveller site
Friends, Families and Travellers

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently making its way through parliament attacks the very existence of Britain’s last nomadic communities, namely Romany Gypsies (like me), Irish Travellers and Scottish Travellers.

Over the years, Conservative government policies have shut down sites and accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers nationwide, leading to a massive shortage. Now, this new bill intends to criminalise us when, because of this shortage, we inevitably can’t find a formal site and have to stop on another patch of land. We’ll face fines of thousands of pounds, three-month prison sentences and seizure of our goods, including vehicles. Which means our trailers – our homes. In short, the bill makes our very way of life a criminal offence.

While these measures seem draconian enough, the worst thing about the bill is the circumstances such punishments will create. If both parents are sentenced to prison, for example, or lose their home, what happens to the children? In a country that has a long history of callous forced adoptions when it comes to communities like ours, it seems inevitable that the state will see this as an opportunity to forcibly assimilate our children through the care system.

As well as specifically punishing our way of life, the bill increases police powers across the board. We already experience high levels of police brutality and fear that this legislation will only embolden racist police violence against our community.

In recent years, we’ve seen a pregnant Irish Traveller woman with epilepsy being dragged across a field and treated so violently she began to have a seizure. There are also numerous videos online of Gypsy and Traveller men experiencing savage and unprovoked attacks from police, in one case leading to a man’s leg being badly mutilated by an out-of-control police dog. This situation is not new to us – remember the extremely violent forced eviction in 2011 of Traveller families from Dale Farm in Essex, when an army of riot police battled with protestors and the families themselves, including women and children.

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Gypsies and Travellers ignored

It’s interesting how little Gypsies and Travellers are mentioned in the debate around the new legislation, given how badly it affects us. When an onslaught of Conservatives stood up in parliament to further drive the racist knife in with more collective blame and racial tropes, it was depressing how few MPs stood up to defend us – though we are grateful to those who did.

During the pandemic, some Gypsy and Traveller families have struggled to get even the basic necessities for life, such as clean water. Our rates of poverty and deprivation are already extremely high, and the pandemic has made it even harder to access essential services such as healthcare and education. At a time when all these outcomes are worsening, this bill is putting these families in a state of perpetual travel – unable to stop for the basics. In already difficult times, our country is choosing to enact this violence upon us.

If the Tories were really intent on solving problems with rubbish and unauthorised encampments, then Robert Jenrick, the communities and local government minister, should be the one ensuring that local councils provide basic services to our community. Instead, the government has chosen to criminalise England’s last remaining nomads.

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