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How the Police Bill Threatens Britain’s Gypsy and Traveller Communities

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has been condemned for its implications for peaceful protest – but it also threatens to effectively criminalise one of the country's most discriminated-against groups.

If the Conservatives really wanted to solve the issue of unauthorised encampments, they would not place it in the remit of the Home Office. Instead, they would give it to the Department for Communities and Local Government. The simple reason is that police and the justice system cannot solve the issue of thousands of people having nowhere to stay – a point that many police forces across the country made in the Home Office consultation on unauthorised encampments, despite the police often showing themselves to be institutionally racist against Gypsy and Traveller communities.

The common sense is clear: the way to solve a form of homelessness is to create more spaces for people to live and stay, especially temporarily, with access to council-run services like waste disposal and running water. There is such a shortage of sites that many pitches are doubled up; sites are hugely overcrowded, with hundreds on waiting lists in every area of the country. This overcrowding, coupled with intergenerational families, sometimes leads to horrendous death tolls on sites.

The truth is that the trespass provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill were never about solving unauthorised encampments. They are about using our pariah status as a community to embolden the racist underbelly of this country, and rally citizens around another culture war enemy that mostly exists in their minds. For the 15-20 percent of Gypsy and Traveller people who still live the historic and nomadic way of life, as our ancestors did, the PCSC Bill is a matter of survival, both physically and culturally. This bill seeks to make our people criminal just for having the audacity to exist.

Our outcomes in the criminal justice system already do not make pretty reading; neither does our experience of policing and the brutality that police inflict on us. Gypsies and Travellers have an increased likelihood of being given a custodial sentences for the same crime another might not, and of experiencing youth detention. Many have seen videos of police brutality against Gypsies and Travellers – particularly the violent, heavy-handed evictions enacted by armed riot police at sites like Dale Farm. These are not the exceptions: they are the rule.

The provisions of the bill can only be described as legitimising twenty-first century pogroms against Gypsies and Travellers. They allow for:

  • Fines of up to £2500 and three-month prison sentences for unauthorised encampments;
  • The seizure of vehicles and trailers at the discretion of police, held until the conclusion of criminal proceedings (which could mean months and months without a home);
  • The sale of vehicles and trailers to pay fines.

Even worse consequences are implied: for example, parents who are put in prison and who have their homes removed will face the real threat of children’s services removing their children and placing them into care – a habit the British state has had for a long time regarding Gypsy and Traveller children.

So far, much of the analysis of the law does fails to consider how violent evictions and the police in general are towards Gypsies and Travellers. It fails to consider the institutional racism of those officers who will be making the decision to seize vehicles and trailers. Time after time, the police have shown that they cannot be trusted with the powers they already have. We experience police brutality on a massive scale, and now, the perpetrators will be allowed to decide to take our homes.

Despite being one of the most discriminated-against groups in all aspects of life, and being from some of the most deprived families in the country, no measures are being proposed to alleviate the mass shortage of sites or address the lack of negotiated stopping before this bill becomes law. That means that some Gypsy and Traveller communities will have no choice but to become criminal for simply existing, and for experiencing a form of homelessness in the eyes of the state. In that, this bill will actively further the mass incarceration and discrimination our community experiences.

None of this incentivises Gypsies and Travellers to change: it removes their ability to do so. Their control over their lives is being taken out of their hands.

If councils and the Tories wanted to solve problems like rubbish, they would withdraw this bill and supply disposal and sanitation. If ordinary families were refused bins, you would inevitably find piles of rubbish in the streets, just as you do during a bin strike. We do not produce any more rubbish than ordinary families – we are just denied access to council services. Yes, these families are not paying council tax, but neither are many other locals who cannot afford it; if councils approved more sites, families would be able to pay affordable council tax or ground rent.

The power is not with Gypsies and Travellers: it is with government—national and local—and with the racist nimbyism of the planning system. There are plenty of remedies to the current situation, all of which lie outside the Home Office – but what this bill shows is that the Tories are more interested in reinforcing racism than finding real solutions.