Proposals to criminalise unauthorised Gypsy and Traveller encampments fly in the face of police recommendations to make more sites available to best tackle the situation, it has been revealed.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, this month announced plans to crack down on unauthorised Traveller camps, including by making trespass a criminal offence. But police responses to a consultation launched last year about dealing with such encampments show forces are opposed to such a move.
Their submissions, obtained by the Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) charity under freedom of information (FOI) legislation, showed that 75% of police responses indicated that their current powers were sufficient and/or proportionate. Additionally, 84% did not support the criminalisation of unauthorised encampments and 65% said lack of site provision was the real problem.
Abbie Kirkby, advice and policy manager at FFT, said the proposed laws would make the lives of Gypsies and Travellers a misery.
She said: “The evidence we have collected shows that the Home Office are deliberately ignoring police views on unauthorised encampments. The timing of the consultation announcement makes it clear that the government’s motive is to use Gypsies and Travellers to gather votes at election time.
“There is no point in bringing in more laws which tell Travellers where they can’t go when you aren’t telling them where they can go.”
The charity made FOI requests to individual forces, police and crime commissioners and three police bodies after the Home Office refused to tell it how many constabularies supported criminalisation of trespass in their submissions to last year’s consultation.
In all, 20 forces said they responded to the consultation and shared their submissions. Five did not respond to the FOI request, and the remainder said they did not engage with the consultation.
In its consultation response, the National Police Chiefs Council, and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, said: “The lack of sufficient and appropriate accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers remains the main cause of incidents of unauthorised encampment and unauthorised development by these groups.”
It added that criminalisation of trespass would likely breach the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010. Cambridgeshire police force concurred, saying it “would be criminalising a culture and lifestyle”.
West Yorkshire police said existing powers enabled a swift and effective response where necessary, while Surrey police said: “Revised powers does not tackle the root cause of site provision.”
Charities, including FFT, have warned that nomadic societies are in the midst of of a housing crisis because of a shortage of authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers to set up on. Therefore, unauthorised encampments have been increasing, often enraging some permanent residents.
FFT, whose report on the subject is published on Thursday, says the government should be moving from an enforcement approach to one of provision. Its recommendations include reintroducing the statutory duty – repealed in 1994 – on local authorities to provide official sites for Gypsies and Travellers.
One traveller, Terry, said: “The evictions are ridiculous. You’ve got children crying, women crying … There’s no time to do anything, you throw everything on to the back of your van and you’ve got to go. They escort you down the road, then after a while they leave you, and then you’ve got to pitch up somewhere else. Then you go through it all over again. It’s a never ending, vicious circle of hatred and racism.”
The proposed changes are the subject of a consultation closing on 4 March 2020.
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “As part of the consultation further views from police forces will be taken into consideration along with the views of local authorities, travellers and communities. It is not for us to pre-empt the outcome of these discussions.”