Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups fear new government measures could harm their nomadic way of life
A legal encampment at the Appleby Horse Fair
Unless the UK government provides more legal campsites, its plans to toughen up crime legislation could pose an existential threat to the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller way of life and breach their human rights, campaigners say.
The government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill aims to create a new offence, punishable by up to three months in prison or a fine of up to £2,500, or both, if an individual with a vehicle trespasses, or intends to trespass, on private land and does not leave when asked to do so by the landowner or police. At present, staying overnight on a so-called unauthorised site constitutes a civil offence, meaning it is up to the police whether the individual should be required to move on.
The Conservatives pledged to take tougher action against people who reside on land without permission in their 2019 manifesto. The government has said unauthorised encampments can create significant challenges and costs for local councils and communities, and bring distress and misery to those who live nearby. They also give an unfair, negative image of the vast majority of Travellers who abide by the law, it said.
These are scary times for Gypsies and Travellers - entire lives could be criminalised
However, representatives of Traveller communities and campaign groups say most Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) families who temporarily settle on unauthorised land do so out of necessity. There is a well-documented shortage of legal sites in the UK – in March 2021 there were 1,696 households on waiting lists for pitches in England.
The lack of legal sites and the discrimination faced by the GRT community have recently come to a head in several significant court rulings. In 2020 and 2021, the Court of Appeal and the European Court of Human Rights both made separate rulings indicating that to criminalise the act of trespass, without the government providing more designated sites would amount to “a potential breach of both the Convention and the Equality Act”.
The process for approving sites for Travellers to reside is a catch-22 situation. Under local planning policy, to be legally recognised as a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller, an individual must prove that they actively travel. However, the shortage of sites means that to prove adherence to the traditional nomadic way of life, Travellers are forced to reside on unauthorised land. The alternative is to join the settled community.
"These are scary times for Gypsies and Travellers – entire lives could be criminalised for exercising the right to roam and live nomadically. The Government's approach to roadside camps is cruel and will force families and individuals further into the margins,” said Ivy Manning, Hate Crime Caseworker and Engagement Officer at Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT), a group which defends the rights of GRT communities.
"As a Romany Gypsy, I feel like my own voice and life does not matter. If it passes, this Bill's impact will be unbearable and will be felt for generations to come."
GRT communities are already among the most disadvantaged in the UK. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s “barometer of prejudice and discrimination” has indicated they are the protected group which faces the most open hostility.
The government said in April it was working on a new national strategy - announced in mid-2019 - to tackle entrenched inequality of GRT communities. The FFT have said the plan must include measures to tackle Traveller accommodation issues.
Unauthorised encampments reflect badly on the law-abiding traveller community
In the meantime, the history of prejudice against GRT people has raised concerns they could be vulnerable to the wording of the government’s proposed legislation, which states that a person could face prosecution if they merely “intend to reside on land” or are “likely to cause … significant damage or disruption”. The Community Law Project has gone so far as to call the provisions “draconian,” and has warned that imprecise wording in the bill could lead to a situation where all Gypsies and Travellers are caught under the new offence.
In response, a Home Office spokesperson said: “The vast majority of travellers are law abiding, and we recognise their right to follow a nomadic way of life in line with their cultural heritage.
“Unauthorised encampments reflect badly on the law-abiding traveller community – they can cause misery to those who live nearby, with communities impacted by problems such as being unable to access or use their land, and excessive noise and littering.
“It’s therefore right we are giving the police the powers they need to address this issue and the government will continue its work to provide more authorised sites for travellers to reside on.”
The Queen’s Speech confirmed the government’s ambition to create a new criminal offence to target trespassers using vehicles to reside on land who are causing significant damage or disruption to local communities. With committee stage for the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill beginning on 18 May, campaigners will be looking to see if the government gives equal attention to its strategy to improve the lives of the GRT community.