The Police Bill will trap people in a cycle of eviction and criminalisation – it must be changed
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill working its way through the Lords seeks not to protect or celebrate our age-old way of life, but to openly discriminate against it.
There is a way of life in the United Kingdom that goes back half a millennium. It has a set of traditions and customs so old as to pre-date Henry VIII, the formation of the Church of England, and the English Civil War, whose long-standing relationship with the rural community outstretches the Enclosure Acts and the Agricultural Revolution.
Part Four of the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill will, for the first time in centuries, criminalise trespass. It will make it a criminal offence to reside, or to intend to reside, on land in a vehicle (including caravans) without consent. And it will enable the police to seize such vehicles.
This means Gypsies and Travellers who keep to their traditional nomadic culture could lose their homes. People who for generations have lived and worked in our communities, whose children are valued members of our schools, could have their worldly possessions wheeled away, their warmth and shelter seized.
The [Police] Bill does not grapple with the reality that many Gypsies and Travellers do not have places to live in their traditional cultural way
It is wrong in law. Wrong logically and wrong morally - which is why we are seeking, on a cross-party basis, to amend two specific defects in the Bill.
The first relates to trespass. This does not occur out of some express intent to cause what the Bill calls “significant disruption, damage, or distress”. It occurs, as described by the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) because of a “lack of sufficient and appropriate accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers”.
This shortage of sites and suitable stopping places leads to an “unenviable situation” for frontline police officers, according to the NPCC lead for Gypsy, Roma and Travellers, Deputy Chief Constable Janette McCormick.
In her evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, McCormick said: “Where you have an unauthorised encampment, you have a family or families looking for somewhere to stay, you have no sites within that local authority area and, to use the legislation and move them on, in essence, you are going to just push them down the road to another area”.
There is not an enforcement problem. There is a provision problem. And it is getting worse. The number of local authority pitches has decreased by 8.4 per cent in the last decade. In the South East last year, some 88 per cent of local authorities had not complied with the government’s Planning Policy for Traveller Sites and had failed to identify a supply of sites to address unmet need.
Yet the Bill does not grapple with and remedy the reality that many Gypsies and Travellers simply do not have places to live in their traditional cultural way. Instead, as it stands, it will introduce measures which will simply trap people in a cycle of eviction and criminalisation.
So, we are proposing an amendment to make sure local authorities have a statutory duty to provide adequate accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers.
As the Bill stands, a person would be committing a criminal offence by failing to comply with a request by a private individual, rather than by a police officer or other authority. Our second amendment directly challenges this alarming precedent.
Of course, landowners have a right to ask anyone to leave their property, but we do not believe it should be a criminal offence to disobey them, particularly when prejudice may be a factor in their decision-making.
It remains a fact that Gypsies and Travellers are amongst the most demonised and marginalised ethnic and minority communities and regularly experience race hate and prejudice.
It saddens us that we are not discussing a Gypsy and Traveller Bill on site provision and countering prejudice, but rather a Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that will in some of its provisions criminalise a way of life.
It saddens us that we must spend time sifting through legislation on trespass and criminalisation, and not legislation on belonging or valuing difference or protecting our cultural heritage.
And it saddens us that we must exercise our legislative right to freedom of speech to defend a way of life that predates it. But we must. We all must.
Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth is a Conservative peer. Lord Alton is a Crossbench peer. Baroness Whitaker is a Labour peer. Lord Bishop of Manchester is a non-affiliated peer.
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