Published On: Wed, Dec 18th, 2019

Election 2019: The latest attack on travelling communities

An Irish Traveller girl sunbathes on her family’s pitch wall on the South Bermondsey Council-owned Travellers’ site, London. Photo by Elisabeth Blanchet.

On page 19 of its 2019 manifesto, the Conservative Party promises:

‘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, and we will also give councils greater powers within the planning system.’

These words build on Home Secretary Priti Patel’s November 5 launch of a consultation on new police powers, following an initial consultation in April–June 2018. The timing of Patel’s announcement, its focus on settled communities and its inclusion in the manifesto reveal that the government are using prejudice against travelling communities to win votes.

The proposals could make trespass a crime – resulting in prison, a fine or vehicles being confiscated. They promise to criminalise stopping on roads or beside them; to lower from six to two the number of vehicles sited on an unauthorised encampment before police action, and to increase the time trespassers are prohibited from an area from three to twelve months.

Such repressive measures risk inciting further hate towards travelling communities and disregard the issues behind unauthorised encampments, namely the government’s failure to dedicate land to sites and stopping places. The Home Office proposals also ignore a key finding by Friends, Family and Travellers, a charity that works with Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, that the majority of police who responded to the government’s initial consultation oppose increased eviction powers.

A long history of ‘acceptable’ racism

Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are subject to the UK’s ‘last acceptable form of racism’ and consequently experience extreme levels of exclusion, facing unsuitable housing, displacement and substandard service in health, education and the criminal justice system.

Their marginalisation results from a long history of UK government legislation targeting people seen to contradict the customs and norms of people who settle. The 16th century saw repressive laws threaten nomadic peoples with exile or death. In the 17th and 18th centuries, policy turned towards regulation.

From the 19th century onwards, seemingly ‘benevolent’ approaches to nomadic peoples masked institutional desires to promote ‘order’. The growth of fascism across 20th century Europe resulted in the Roma holocaust, in which up to 500,000 people were murdered.

In the post-war period, spatial zoning initiatives instigated The Caravan Sites Act (1968) through which local councils allocated sites for travelling people, recognising their right to space. Thatcher’s neoliberal programme however departed from these more ‘accepting’ politcies: the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994) – introduced following a series of moral panics over New Age Travellers and illegal raves – withdrew councils’ duty to provide sites and capital grants, and granted police greater eviction powers.

Following New Labour’s assimilatory policies of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a decade of institutionally prejudiced policies and cuts have harmed travelling communities. A reduction in stopping places and authorised sites has left many with no choice but to use unauthorised encampments, which can cause clashes with local residents. The alternative for community members – bricks-and-mortar housing – poses an existential threat to their identity.

Real alternatives

Labour’s Race and Faith manifesto promises to ‘develop a comprehensive Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community equality strategy to tackle persistent inequalities, in particular within housing, education and criminal justice.’ It also promises that a Labour government would ‘end racism and discrimination against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, whatever their ethnicity, culture or background, whether settled or mobile, and protect the right to pursue a nomadic way of life.’

The positive strategies a left-wing government could implement are still to be explored. Friends, Family and Travellers argue that focusing on service provision, as opposed to law enforcement, is vital – for example, by restoring the legal duty on local authorities to offer official sites to travelling communities. But, ideas about special fixity need to be addressed.

Dualta Roughneed, author of The Right to Roam: Travellers and Human Rights in the Modern Nation-State (Cambridge Scholars Publishing) suggests that a flexible system of temporary sites, together with legislation to tackle the rigid perspectives of settler people, can help create an inclusive society.

London Gypsies and Travellers, a London-based charity, is meanwhile calling for a non-confrontational, ‘negotiated stopping’ response to roadside camps, providing illustrations of how such an approach could work in practice.

In the face of increased right-wing ideology and rising racism, there has never been a more critical time to work towards a political project dedicated to commonality, pluralism and respect for travelling people.

The Tories’ direct attack on communities must be rejected, including by submitting a response to the consultation announced by Patel, which is open to the public until March 2020. If left uncontested, these dangerous proposals will intensify exclusions of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people, incite prejudice and suppress their notions of identity and freedom.

Bethany Holmes is a writer and editor, focused on cultural theory and history in relation to urban space, activism and social justice.

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