Charities say the bill, if passed, would lead to the forced assimilation of Gypsies and Travellers.
A new bill with potentially huge implications for the UK’s Gypsies and Travellers is quietly awaiting its second reading. The Gypsy and Travellers Community Bill, put forward by Conservative MP Andrew Selous, proposes turning Traveller sites into land for housing, moving all Gypsies and Travellers into houses “to help them integrate”, and criminalising trespass.
The bill also proposes councils provide temporary caravan sites where necessary and that schools be required to teach more about Gypsy and Traveller culture and provide more for their children.
“The current policy of segregation has resulted in a failure of integration and poor community cohesion,” Selous told the House of Commons at the bill’s first reading in November 2018. He said the current system, which has some 22,792 Traveller caravans nationally (29% of caravans on council sites), “pits community against community”. (Read the full speech here.)
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“Sadly, the current arrangements for travellers are producing terrible outcomes for everyone and real distress to quite a large number of my constituents. It is time to try a new integrated approach with one planning system for everyone where all are equal,” he said
Selous’ declarations that his bill will ease tensions between traditionally nomadic and settled communities has left Traveller communities and advocacy groups unimpressed and alarmed.
Alex Raikes, strategic director of Bristol anti-racism charity SARI, said the organisation was “completely against the bill’s dubious aims”.
She didn’t mince her words: “If this bill was to be passed, it will mean GRT people will be literally written out of local housing and planning strategy. They will also be criminalised more than they already are. It will mean this country is infringing on the human rights of GRT people. Surely this goes against our apparent aim to be a liberal, tolerant and accommodating country that prides itself on celebrating multiculturalism?
“It will mean even worse outcomes for a community that already has the worst outcomes in so many aspects of life, as Selous has disingenuously referenced. This is an abhorrent bill and we truly hope it is rightfully challenged by other MPs and stopped in its tracks as soon as possible.”
Councillor Mark Weston, leader of Bristol’s Conservatives, has been eager to get trespass criminalised for a while. In September, Tory councillors brought a motion calling on Bristol City Council to apply for the increasingly popular injunctions and to lobby the government to criminalise trespass.
“We have one law in this country and I think it needs to be applied fairly,” he told the Cable. “I don’t think that people should be able to illegally trespass on private land and then just be able to move on at will.”
But even he remains unconvinced about the bill’s aim to get rid of permanent caravan sites. “I think the council should have an obligation to make sure there’s adequate provision,” he said.
“I don’t think we should go for a one-option-fits-all when it comes to housing.”
Luke Wenman, a 26-year-old Romany Gypsy and advocate for Traveller rights, was not convinced by the proposals. “It’s an excuse for cultural cleansing,” he told me. “There are two ways people tackle Travellers,” he said. “One, they force you to continue being on the move, or two, they force you to assimilate.”
He said the proposals for teaching GRT history in schools is badly needed, but it’s just a cover for the less palatable changes Selous is pushing for.
“It’s so carefully worded. When it comes to giving our community concessions it’s not specific, but when it comes to taking away (rights) it’s very specific.”
He also didn’t appreciate the way Selous talks about the Travellers in his constituency as if they’re separate from the rest of the community, and then talks about the importance of integration in the next breath.
“It’s as if we aren’t his constituents. We are the local community. Where else are we from? Who else do we get to vote for? We shouldn’t be othered.”
Wenman, a chemical engineering graduate, said moving into a house doesn’t make communities accept them. “The racism doesn’t go because we’ve moved into a house. You still get bullied at school.”
He keeps his heritage quiet when applying for jobs. He lives in a house with his family but the fact they have land and horses marks them out as being Gypsies. “People make our lives a misery. This whole integration thing doesn’t work.”
Cliff Codona, chairman of the National Travellers’ Action Group, says the bill might be the “next best thing” as long as Travellers would be able to keep their traditional way of life, keeping caravans and horses. Wenman described this as naive.
“Does anyone seriously think that ordinary people will stand for that? if they give you a council house, do you think they’ll let you put your caravan outside?”
A sugar-coated poison pill?
Parts of the bill sound as if Selous’ sincere desire is to help people his local Gypsy and Traveller communities, but everyone I’ve spoken to about it is very concerned about the potential implications – and distrustful of his intentions.
Gypsy and Traveller charity Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) is damning in its criticism of the bill, calling it a “sugar-coated poison pill”, and saying Selous is using promises of educational reform to hide his real aim – to force the assimilation of Travellers.
“Essentially the bill equates to criminalising a nomadic way of life and to cultural assimilation, prohibiting Gypsies and Travellers from living in caravans as they have done for hundreds of years,” said FFT advice and policy manager, Allie Kirkby. “Imagine trying to enshrine in law that those living in bricks in mortar needed to move into a caravan!”
Like Wenman, she was also deeply unimpressed by the suggestion that Gypsies and Travellers are not integrated in their local communities.
“With a pitch to live on, Travellers can much more easily participate in community life such as children attending school, working in the local area, and supporting local businesses and services. Without a pitch to live on then this becomes more difficult as families are caught in a constant cycle of evictions and locked out from accessing basic services.
“Living on an authorised site does not prohibit participation in local community life!”
More provision, not more enforcement, say charities
Kirkby said the bill’s proposals were at odds with Gypsy and Traveller human and cultural rights and fail to address the real problem: central and local government’s persistent failure to implement effective planning policies.
Charities continue to make the case for provision rather than enforcement. Provision of sites for Travellers has been steadily stripped away under successive Conservative governments.
Meanwhile councils and the government consistently respond to the Gypsy and Traveller housing crisis by cracking down more on unauthorised encampments, instead of tackling the root cause – the chronic shortage of public and private pitches available. And it’s only going to get worse – the Home Office recently announced plans to increase police powers to evict and to criminalise trespass.
Bristol’s GRT communities already have some of the worst education and health outcomes in the city and policy changes continue to make things worse for them year on year.
“Other than the huge moral issues and potential mental health implications surrounding this, it might be worth reflecting on the fact that we are currently in the midst of a housing crisis,” Kirkby added. “Interesting to think there are thousands of spare houses around to accommodate Gypsies and Travellers.”
The bill’s second reading is due on 15 March. FFT is Secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma and have asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission and other organisations for support ensuring the rights and freedoms of Gypsies and Travellers remain protected in the UK. If you want to raise concerns about the bill, you can contact your local MP.
Have you been affected by the changes in the law for Gypsies and Travellers? Get in touch if you want to share your story: firstname.lastname@example.org, 07469809006 – or fill in the form below. Interviews can be anonymous.