The new policing bill essentially threatens to criminalise one of the UK’s most discriminated minority communities and destroy the fabric of their lives. It’s also racist.
A rising number of people know that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSCB) plans to increase police powers to clamp down on the right to protest. Less known, however, are the threats to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities contained in Section 4. This gives police new powers to fine or imprison people, or seize their homes, simply because they live a nomadic life. As the charity Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) states, the bill threatens to “further compound the inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers, needlessly pushing people into the criminal justice system”. New powers also “disproportionally affect specific minority and ethnic communities” and could well “conflict with equality and human rights legislation”.
First, they came for the Gypsies…
The 2019 Conservative manifesto entrenched a chilling announcement from home secretary Priti Patel in November 2019. Allegedly as part of its offer to make “our country safer”, the manifesto pledged to:
tackle unauthorised traveller camps… 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… [And] make intentional trespass a criminal offence
Less than two years later, here we are. On 8 March, Patel bragged on her Facebook page: “Promise Delivered: New criminal offence of intentional trespass”. Entrenching an ‘us vs them’ position even further, she promised new powers for the police to:
fine or arrest those residing without permission on private or public land in vehicles in order to stop significant disruption, distress or harm being caused to the law-abiding majority.
What does the new bill propose?
Published on 9 March, the PCSCB strengthens police powers under the controversial Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (CJA). The actual remit of the current bill goes even further than anyone feared.
As the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) explains, Section 4:
proposes new anti-trespass laws, particularly affecting the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities, squatters, protestors and those with no fixed abode. It criminalises individuals who the police believe are trespassing, where at least one vehicle is present. Previously a civil matter, trespass could now result in a 3 month cage sentence and/or a fine. It could also result in the confiscation of one’s vehicle and a ban from the area for 12 months. For the GRT community, this means the loss of one’s home. Whatever reassurances the government puts out to the more ‘palatable’ trespassers, like ramblers, the language in the Bill is open to interpretation and marks the beginning of an erosion of our rights to roam and reside.
The plans completely ignore the serious lack of spaces on existing Traveller sites, and seem intent instead on criminalising people further. They also further entrench the “pervasive discrimination and prejudice” GRT communities already experience.
“Last acceptable form of racism?”
A 2017 report by The Traveller Movement called The last acceptable form of racism? surveyed GRT people. It found that, “because of their ethnicity”:
- 91% experienced discrimination
- 70% faced “discrimination in some aspect of education”
- “77% experienced hate speech or a hate crime”
Meanwhile, “76% had hidden their ethnicity to avoid discrimination or prejudice”.
The 2011 census said there were about 63,000 people who identified as “Gypsy, Traveller and Irish Traveller”. But this figure is likely to be an underestimation, not least because Roma was only added to census questions in 2021. These communities are recognised as “distinct ethnic minority groups in law… with a shared history, culture and language stretching back over hundreds of years”. As such, they’re protected under the Equality Act.
But it’s increasingly obvious that there’s a thinly veiled racist attack on GRT people contained in the PCSCB.
There’s also another community of “New Travellers” who are ‘cultural’ rather than ‘ethnic’ travellers.
However, all these groups suffer from racism and discrimination. As FFT explains:
Members of the Gypsy and Traveller communities can often face harassment and discrimination on a daily basis as a result of negative stereotypes and deeply ingrained cultural prejudices.
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy policy led to a crisis in affordable housing, and many people took to the roads to live in vans and trucks. Today, lifestyle choices may lead some people to choose an itinerant lifestyle; but many New Travellers have been forced to live in vans, trucks or boats for economic reasons – to avoid homelessness as private rents continue to spiral.
New or old, this bill threatens all Travellers. And as lawyers point out:
It is also clear that marginalised and oppressed groups will remain at the sharp end of these increased police powers. Black, brown and racialised protesters are more likely to face police violence at protests and to be criminalised or penalised for their actions. This was evident from the police’s response to Black Lives Matter demonstrators last summer, with Black Protest Legal Support noting widespread police violence and intimidation, and Netpol concluding that the policing of these protests was institutionally racist.
The CJA on meth
The 1994 legislation also took aim at Travellers and activists – in particular hunt saboteurs and anti-road protesters. It created a new offence of “aggravated trespass” that criminalised people taking part in non-violent protest. This led to well-founded fears that the act of legitimate protest would be curtailed and criminalised. It also, famously, defined raves as “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. Simply gathering with 20 or more friends to dance became illegal. Fast forward to 2021 and Travellers now could face charges for one single vehicle. Meanwhile, Section 3 proposes to threaten even single people protesting.
Importantly, the shift from ‘aggravated’ to “intentional trespass” is hugely significant and could be used to shift trespass from a civil to a criminal offence. It carries longer sentences, fines, and pushes GRT communities even further into the ditch. And as we’ve seen in the violent police response to the current protests, this is a very different landscape to 1994. In Bristol, the police response seemed to imply that these new powers already exist.
The violent response from Bristol police to a peaceful protest (highlighting Section 4) on 23 March showed what we’re now up against. And this bill isn’t even law yet.
At the time of writing, people are planning demonstrations across the UK. Because it’s vital that we keep the pressure up, show solidarity with all GRT communities, and fight for our right to protest. The implications of this bill are too terrifying to ignore. Silence is violence.
Main article image used with permission