Maintaining a nomadic lifestyle is vital to a small number of ethnic groups throughout the world. Irish Travellers, and Romany Gypsies like me, have a long and proud history in Britain.
Our communities have brought entertainment, offered mobile, cheap and versatile labour and helped build the UK’s extensive canal system. We’ve constructed Britain’s roads. We’ve worked in the factories that fuelled the industrial revolution and today we are seasonal farm labourers. Our grandfathers served and died for Britain in the Second World War just like yours.
We have been an integral part of building this country but have historically suffered deportations, slavery and even the death penalty as a punishment simply for being a “habitual Gypsy”. Throughout the ages, there have been attempts by the state to extinguish our nomadic way of life, which today is hanging on by a thread. The government’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is set to further erode our customs, and subject us to disproportionate policing.
This draconian legislation will not only restrict protest, but will also criminalise trespass. The bill will require Romany Gypsies and Travellers to have planning permission to stop in any place.
Under successive Conservative governments, trespassing was a civil matter, but as part of the new police bill, it will be treated as a crime so serious that we could lose our homes. It applies if you have “intent to reside” in your vehicle “for any period”. This law has the potential to legislate our ancient cultural practice of nomadism out of existence.
Under the conservatives in the late 1980s and early 1990s, two-thirds of our traditional, informal stopping places, some of which had been in use by our ancestors for thousands of years, were sealed off. This dramatically changed our travelling routes and pushed us into more visible open spaces.
Then, in 1994, the Criminal Justice Act repealed the duty of local authorities to provide official sites for us, this made it more difficult for families like mine, working in agriculture, to lead a nomadic lifestyle. We were caught in a constant cycle of being moved on and cut off from services that offered our children security, education and future work.
The Criminal Justice Act pushed my family into council housing for a brief time. The mental health impact of this on my mother was devastating – she recalled feeling like a “caged bird” and dropped down to five stone. We sought another way to preserve our traditions and sanity, eventually saving to buy a plot of land suitable to place our caravans on.
For most Traveller families, this is not an option, as our communities face racism and prejudice on a daily basis. My family fought a five-year legal battle to get planning permission for a small site, so we could maintain our way of life and have access to education and health care.
The irony was, to gain planning permission Gypsies and Travellers had to obtain “gypsy status”, and prove that we are – and will be –continuing to travel. We keep petrol receipts, toll road receipts, and store family photos of where our caravan is parked to prove we are travelling for economical purposes. After years of governments encouraging Gypsy and Travellers to develop their own land and travel less – we have to travel to remain settled.
The new Police Crime and Courts Sentencing Bill will stop people residing in any vehicle without consent. If we disobey the law outlined in the bill it will have far-reaching consequences for generations to come – we risk being fined up to £2,500, our homes being confiscated, and potentially receiving a three-month prison sentence. If both parents go to jail, what will happen to our children?
In Britain, there are many allegations of “forced adoptions” by Romany and Irish Travellers. There are real concerns in these communities that the state will see the police bill as an opportunity to assimilate our children through the care system.
Research from Friends Families and Travellers found that 84 per cent of police responses did not support the criminalisation of unauthorised encampments and 65 per cent of police responses said that lack of site provision was the real problem.
Travellers and Romany Gypsies are caught in a vicious cycle as the government fails to deliver sites where we can live. The police bill tells us where we can’t go, but no one is saying where we can go. We are being legislatively cleansed from Britain, and this bill must be scrapped before it further eradicates our traditions and destroys our already marginalised communities.
Lisa Smith is the youth editor of Travellers Times and is chair of the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and Other Travellers (ACERT)