Travellers in the UK
Nobody knows exactly how many `Travellers’ there are, estimates vary between 15 – 50 000, Unemployment, homelessness and the desire to escape from the crumbling urban environment have motivated many, whilst some see their lifestyles as defining new ways of living in a post-industrial society. With the onset of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, many are choosing to leave Britain for many destinations across Europe.
They make their living in many ways. Some are mechanics, electricians or carpenters while many provide casual labour for agriculture and building sites (both now in less need of such labour). Many are skilled at crafts and make jewellery, pottery and paintings to sell at markets. Others run cafes, stages and sound systems at Festivals and Raves. Recycling waste and scrap is a favourite, but now made more difficult by the 1990 Environmental Protection Act, which makes taking items from skips an offence and `scrapping’ illegal without a carriers licence.
The term `New-Age Traveller’ was adopted during the 1970’s as the travelling scene grew out of the Free Festival movement. People bought vehicles to transport themselves and their possessions from one event to another. By 1980, a network of Free Festivals had become established throughout the country. Stonehenge became the site for the largest festival and the spiritual centre for people who identified with ancient pre-Christian religion. There was an emphasis on communal gatherings and observance of the seasons.
In an attempt to stamp out this phenomenon, the Government have spent many millions of pounds on police operations, court cases and legislation. There has been conflict between landowners and the commoners since before the `Diggers’ revolted in 1649, it is an old struggle which has taken on new forms. (The tension probably began between the farmers and the hunter-gatherers of the Stone Age). Travellers want sites to live on and to hold festivals on remote pieces of land. In response, the authorities draft ever more draconian law.
The last Conservative party election manifesto promised to review the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, removing any local authority responsibility to provide sites for travellers. In their view:
“illegal camping by Gypsies and other travellers can affect the lives of whole communities, we believe that this problem must be tackled….the public expect the government to take decisive action to bring this nuisance to an end”.
However, the police are already adequately empowered to act in such cases of trespass and the case for this further legislation was always questionable. The 1986 Public Order Act was designed to quash unwanted public gatherings, and contains specific `anti-hippy’ clauses where people can be imprisoned for 6 months or face a £1000 fine.
It was brought in after the `Stoney Cross’ incident in Hampshire in 1986 where hundreds of travellers had their homes impounded under previous legislation. Powers given to the police by the POA are frequently used against small groups of travellers, but to fully enforce the law against 2 000 – 20 000 people would require a military style operation involving thousands of men.
The dilemma for the police on the ground is that they are caught between the growing demand for Free Festivals an Traveller sites and an inflexible political directive to suppress them. However, government view the travellers as “Rural Terrorists” and make much use of surveillance in tracking their whereabouts. There is a full time “Operation Solstice” office in Wiltshire, an “Operation Nomad” office in Avon & Somerset and a Central Intelligence Unit based in Thames Valley, which is intended to be enlarged extensively.
The new Criminal Justice legislation against travellers poses a serious threat to Civil Liberties where all kinds of unofficial demonstrations could be curtailed. It is also used against other groups such as – Ramblers, Hunt Saboteurs, Dance Parties and environmental protests at places like Twyford Down or Newbury.
The silly season again!! Summer, and a wish to gather with others of a similar `cast of mind’, has this effect dosen’t it? With so many changes to the law, in the shape of the Criminal Justice Act, It is thought important that people are informed of the issues at hand. Policing by `consent’ how seems to have been replaced by `coercion’. I’m fed up with the harassment and violence meted out to people by the police in various operations as defenders of the peace and public order.
Most of the time, the major offenders in `breaching the peace’ are the police themselves. They are currently spending vast sums of public money on undercover operations, surveillance, manning road blocks. Wasting many police hours in arresting people and filling up cells with people just trying to follow their chosen lifestyle.