Travellers’ and Gypsies’ ancient way of life is under threat from “inhumane” proposals to criminalise unauthorised encampments, charities have warned.
The Home Office has announced it will launch a consultation on granting police new powers to arrest and seize property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised caravan sites.
At present, such trespassing is a civil matter but, if proposals are approved, it could also become a criminal offence.
Announcing the consultation, Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “Unauthorised encampments can cause misery to those who live nearby, with reports of damage to property, noise, abuse and littering.
“The public want their communities protected and for the police to crack down on trespassers.
“Our proposals aim to ensure these encampments can be challenged and removed as quickly as possible.”
The proposed police powers would be created by amending the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
Officers would be allowed to intervene in unauthorised camps consisting of two or more vehicles, where currently there must be at least six.
They would also be able to remove people deemed to be trespassing from camping, and direct them to sites in neighbouring local authorities, where currently they must be directed to sites in the same area.
Image Credit: Tom Hodgkinson / Flickr.
Friends and Families of Travellers (FFT), a national charity, has labelled Patel’s rhetoric as “discriminatory” and the proposals “inhumane”.
In a statement posted on Twitter, the charity accused the government of focussing on the behaviour of a minority while tarring all Gypsies and Travellers with the same brush.
“It is clear that these proposals would have a devastating impact on Gypsy and Traveller communities who have been part of British life since before the 16th century, yet face some of the greatest inequalities of any group in England and Wales,” it said.
“If property damage, noise, abuse and littering truly are the Home Office’s concerns, we know that there already exists reams of criminal law to prevent and punish this.”
The proposals come as dozens of councils across the country have been obtaining injunctions to ban Travellers from stopping on vast tracts of public land.
However, earlier this year the High Court refused to grant Bromley Council a de facto borough-wide injunction prevent people camping on 171 patches of land.
Campaign group London Gypsies and Travellers, represented by human rights barrister Marc Willers QC, argued the injunction was disproportionate and discriminatory.
Reacting to the Home Office’s consultation, Willers told RightsInfo: “Everyone knows that the way to reduce the number of unauthorised encampments is to make adequate site provision for Gypsies and Travellers rather than subject them to a continual cycle of forcible evictions which consigns then and their children to a life of misery and deprivation.”
The government said that it has made £2 million funding available to help councils “crack down” on unauthorised encampments. Councils can also help develop authorised sites using funding from the £9 billion Affordable Homes Programme, it added.
However, since this programme was started in 2016 no councils have used it to fund any permanent sites, according to a letter FFT submitted to the UN in January this year.