Criminalising A Way of Life – The Impact of The Bill on Travellers


Over the last few weeks we’ve seen the passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in the House of Commons turn the right to protest into a hot topic and rightly so. The Suffragettes, Chartists and Civil Rights campaigners would be turning in their graves at legislation that seeks to curb the democratic right to object to unjust laws and to campaign for change. Protests have won us many basic legal protections that today we all take for granted including the right to vote, workers rights and to not be discriminated against on grounds of difference.

One human right that we take for granted is a legal respect for family life and home (Article 8, Human Rights Act 1998.) The bill has another section of concerning content, part 4. Unauthorised Encampments and Trespass, that threatens that basic right for many. With that wording you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s only fair for landowners to be able to evict those who trespass without permission, but the current laws already enable this so what’s being changed?

Trespass is in fact changing from a civil matter and becoming a criminal offence. Offenders risk arrest, imprisonment, return to an area being prohibited and property being seized including vehicles. The proposals not only cover private land in the way we think of it as homes and gardens, business or farm land but also vast private estates with many acres owned by wealthy and aristocratic landowners who were gifted it, along with their titles, for supporting Kings of old in battles many centuries ago. When you consider that over half of the land in the UK is owned by less than 1% of the population then the stark reality is that there’s not a fair share left for the rest of us to live on. The proposals also cover public land which includes land and car parks managed by local councils, The National Trust and Forestry Commission which are the most likely places these trespass laws will be used.

Those who live full time or part time in vehicles will be most affected by the new laws;
*Roma, Gypsies, Irish and Scottish Travellers whose nomadic way of life and ethnic minority status is protected under the Equality Act 2010.
*New Age Travellers who first adopted a nomadic lifestyle in the 1960’s with 4th and 5th generations now born into a distinct culture which is intrinsically connected to travelling.
*Vanlifers who are the newcomers to nomadism swapping the modern economic reality of unaffordable, overpriced rents and perpetual house sharing well beyond student days for instagrammed adventures.
*The laws will also catch Motorhomers and Campervanners who “wild camp”.

All Travellers regardless of descriptor, cultural differences or how long we’ve lived this way belong to communities and identities that hinge entirely upon living a nomadic way of life. At all times in human history there have been groups and individuals who have lived nomadically and whose work has depended on travel. Nomadism has existed for eras longer than being settled has been viewed as the accepted norm. Living in bricks and staying in one location doesn’t and has never suited everyone.

In the past common land was the accepted location for Travellers to camp but that option no longer exists. There is a huge problem of having nowhere to go for Travelling people today. Councils have been required by law to provide official sites but the need massively outweighs provision. Disused and derelict wasteland (usually council owned), quiet car parks by woods and beaches or industrial areas are therefore the only options left to make camp. The new laws cover all of these options of places we currently stay and basically make living in a vehicle only possible on a holiday camp site which would be more expensive over time than renting a house or paying a mortgage and so not a feasible reality for most people who live this way full time. Also many if not most sites only accept holiday camper vans and not Traveller vehicles.

Whatever our destination there’s no real end goal of an official place we are allowed to stay. Nomadic life is already a succession of finding new places we can camp without being moved on. When we park up we are often subjected to discrimination, unkind comments and even vigilante attacks by locals driven by prejudices that come from disdainful depictions in the media or stereotypical narratives of problem Travellers passed on from one person to the next. This can mean we seek to find safety in numbers, travelling with friends or stopping for longer periods in small communities of those we share a way of life with. This is especially true if we experience ill health, need to work in a local area for a while or have kids in local education provision and so need to remain in one place which is why more fixed Traveller communities evolve.

The proposed new laws say that we can and will be moved on if we cause “damage, disruption or distress” but these are pretty subjective descriptors as us just being there is deemed to be distressing or disruptive to many people because their stereotype driven fear of us stops them from walking past. Damage could be as little as tyre tracks or a washing line tied to a tree or our camps being viewed as “untidy“. We live outside our homes as much as within and often have items outside. People also hold aesthetic prejudices towards the type of vehicles we live in.

There’s no guidance in the wording of the proposals as to what will be accepted forms of the “three D’s” and no requirement for court proceedings prior to evictions and homes being seized to decide whether this is just or fair in each case. That means no legal process or scrutiny to rule whether we truly have committed a criminal act worthy of punishment prior to being evicted and made homeless. It will be at the discretion of an individual landowner, agent or police officer, who could hold their own prejudices about our way of life, to determine whether our homes being parked somewhere constitutes a crime.

Their individual judgment will also decide what they deem is a “reasonably practicable” time scale for us to move off that land before it’s deemed that we’ve broken the law by not doing so. In that moment they will decide whether our reasons for not moving off the land are justified or criminal. A mechanical issue, children sleeping in their beds, driver tiredness, working locally or needing to access local services such as schools or hospitals or the myriad of different circumstances that can and will present themselves to the individual making the decisions. There’s a long history of police, councils and those who own or manage land not treating Travellers with much respect so having to rely on trusting that an individual will treat us reasonably with no due legal process to check that they are using these powers justly doesn’t fill many of us with much confidence.

The consequences of not moving on to the satisfaction of the officer or landowner are arrest and imprisonment and of course a criminal record, heavy fines, being banned from a local area potentially where we have work, family connections and our kids attend local schools. The powers extend to allowing police to seize and destroy vehicles which for us are our homes and contain all of our possessions. Seizing them means leaving us homeless. For those of us who carry the tools of our trades and/or need to travel to different areas to work this will leave us without any way of making a living. The most worrying consideration is that if we are locked up and made homeless what happens to our children? They will of course be taken by social services and as our homes will have been destroyed along with all of the possessions we need to provide and care for our kids (including their own personal possessions such as beds and clothing and toys) we are unlikely to get them returned to our care. It’s pretty much our entire way of life that’s being criminalised and our families’ security and assurance that we will still be together and able to live in our home tomorrow that’s under threat. We are left with the only option being to live a life of perpetual motion, ready to move on at a moment’s notice and feeling like we are on the run. Daily fear of losing our freedom, our homes, everything we own and our children is no way to live. Any knock at our door could be the one that decimates our lives.

Please join us in opposing this bill. Help us to show that criminalising us, displacing us and dramatically driving up the homelessness statistics and the number of kids in care is not the answer to achieving social harmony. Nobody deserves to live with the threat of losing their home just for living in it. Nobody deserves to be turned into a criminal overnight on an individual’s definition of whether their way of life causes damage, disruption or distress without the due legal process of court. As well as threatening a nomadic way of life this sets a very dangerous legal precedent. We can already be evicted from land under current law, criminalising us, casting us out of the area and taking our homes in the process is unjust.

Written by Jess Fox

Jess Fox is a New Age Traveller, Dressmaker, Autistic blogger, Single parent, Home Educator and Carer for her son who is also Autistic. She collects vinyl records and Irregular Choice trainers.

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