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By John McGregor, a translator and political violence researcher
Successive waves of deepening austerity and state oppression have disproportionately targeted marginalized groups. In England, Tory policy and legislation on Gypsies and Travellers is a particularly vile manifestation of this phenomenon.
A 2019 House of Commons briefing paper on Gypsies and Travellers clearly identifies how various levels of government have abandoned their responsibilities towards their citizens. The briefing identifies local authorities as the responsible level of government:
Responsibility for planning for the provision of sufficient Gypsy and Traveller sites in England lies with local authorities, who are best placed to assess the needs of their communities.
Even if local authorities might be best placed to make this assessment, they aren’t actually called on to do so. The same briefing notes:
Local authorities are no longer required to carry out a specific, separate assessment of the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their local area, although they still have a general duty to assess the housing needs of everyone in their area.
The result of this failure to fulfill the functions of government is that there is a deep and chronic shortage in available pitches for Gypsies and Travellers. Some local governments have responded by issuing a series of injunctions in an effort to simply remove Gypsies and Travellers from their area. These anti-encampment injunctions have been sought against groups of known and unknown individuals and, most crucially, against individuals who may join the group in the future. This inclusion of injunctions against newcomers was upheld in a 2022 Court of Appeal case and while it has thus far been used to target Gypsies and Travellers, the potential for governments to exploit these injunctions against anyone they deem undesirable should not be ignored, particularly as the UK continues to lock up an increasingly wide variety of protestors.
Most people in England who identify as Gypsy or Traveller now live in permanent, fixed dwellings, but there are still a significant number, over 20%, who live in a caravan or other mobile or temporary structure and who need places for encampments. Even without injunctions, there are often no available pitches.
A January 2021 report for the charity Friends, Families and Travellers found that there were only 59 permanent pitches and 42 transit pitches available across England, themselves contained in only 18 sites in total. FFT calculated that there are at least 1696 families on waiting lists for pitches.
To address its own failure to provide enough suitable pitches, one approach the British government has taken is to try to define the problem out of existence. In a 2015, the government updated planning laws to change the definition of people with Gypsy and Traveller status, a requirement for access to pitches.
Until 2015, the Planning Policy for Traveller Sites provided the following definition for Gypsy and Traveller Status:
Persons of nomadic habit of life whatever their race or origin, including such persons who on grounds only of their own or their family’s or dependants’ educational or health needs or old age have ceased to travel temporarily or permanently, but excluding members of an organised group of travelling showpeople or circus people travelling together as such.
In August 2015, the Department for Communities and Local Government simply removed “permanently” from the definition, meaning that anyone who has ceased to travel due to their or a family member’s disability or old age is excluded. The government is not ignorant to the effects of this change. A Mid Sussex local government document on planning for Gypsy and Traveller sites that dates to before the 2015 change explained:
National planning guidance recognises the needs of Gypsies and Travellers even when they may have stopped travelling, temporarily or permanently, so to enable the cultural traditions of being a Gypsy or Traveller to be maintained.
Although national planning guidance no longer recognizes these needs, and thus artificially deflates demand, the needs still exist. Lisa Smith is a Romany woman who was refused planning permission and subsequently had her appeal rejected on the grounds that she no longer fit the definition required for Gypsy and Traveller status.
Smith had already lived with her family on a site since April 2013 and applied to the council in 2016 to allow for permanent residential use as a Gypsy and Traveller Site in 2016. This was rejected, as was the initial appeal. By applying the 2015 definition, the inspector found that no member of the Smith family fell within the new definition for Gypsy and Traveller status because Smith herself has taken up settled employment and she has members of her family who are unable to travel for work.
Smith challenged the decision in the High Court in 2020 but the Court ruled in favor of the government. She has since brought an appeal, which was heard at the Court of Appeal in London on 29 and 30 June this year. The ruling in this case is still pending but it is not the only legal current legal challenge against laws targeting Gypsies and Travellers.
With such a lack of available pitches, it’s unsurprising that trespassing on private property emerges as an issue. Having caused much of the problem, the Tories are also ramping up penalties on the natural outcome.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which became law in April 2022, made it an offence to reside, or intend to reside, with a vehicle on land without the consent of the occupier. If a police officer or the occupier asks an unauthorized resident to leave and the resident refuses, or returns within a year, then they can be arrested and their vehicle seized. Obviously, in the case of unauthorized residents with vehicles, the vehicles are their residences.
If the state decides to prosecute, they hold the seized vehicles until the end of the proceeding. Even when there is no prosecution, the state can hold the seized vehicles for three months. As it is a criminal offense under the new act, a conviction could even result in a three-month prison term.
The Community Law Project has lodged an application for a judicial review in the High Court on the grounds that the law is discriminatory and a breach of the Human Rights Act 1998. It is clear that it directly targets Gypsies and Travellers, both in its prohibitions and in its penalties.
One of the reasons the government can get away with withdrawing resources from Gypsies and Travellers and passing laws targeted at them is because they are the ‘least liked’ group in the UK. A 2022 University of Birmingham study about Islamophobia sought to gauge how positively or negatively people in the UK felt about various ethnic and religious groups. Despite the original focus, the authors discovered:
The surprising – and in places, highly concerning – results show that it is not Muslims who are the ‘least liked’ group in Britain but Gypsy and Irish Travellers, who stand out by an almost 20% margin.
The final results showed that 44.6% of respondents had negative attitudes towards Gypsies and Travellers, with only 13.7% reporting a positive attitude.
Marginalized groups often face the cruelest treatment at the hands of the ruling class, and such a high level of public hostility makes Gypsy and Traveller communities prime targets for some of the most extreme examples of the typical Tory treatment of the poor. Through a combination of legislation and policy changes, the Tories have implemented a hostile environment policy against a section of their own population, depriving them of the necessary public resources and then criminalizing their response.