March 8, 2020 | 16 minutes read | Tags: Class struggle in Britain

Red Fightback & Travellers Against Fascism on Resisting Anti-Traveller Legislation

Every voice matters in this struggle. We urge all communists, socialists, and fighters for justice in Britain to lend their ongoing support to Traveller-led organisations and initiatives as we collectively resist this latest attempt to criminalise and marginalise Travellers. We stand together!

Red Fightback & Travellers Against Fascism on Resisting Anti-Traveller Legislation

On Thursday, March 5, comrades from the London branch of Red Fightback organised and delivered a talk alongside Travellers Against Fascism (TAF) on resisting the proposed anti-Traveller changes in the legislation around criminal trespass.

The talk offered some context on the historical and legal status of Roma and Travellers in Britain and Ireland and the history of antiziganism and anti-Traveller sentiment in Europe before explaining the proposed changes and how they amount to explicitly anti-Traveller measures.

The talk was delivered at GRASS, a revolutionary/radical space operated by the Green Anticapitalist Front. Red Fightback extends their gratitude to GAF for sharing the space. The slideshow is available below, and the full text of the presentation is available at the end of this article.

The government consultation also closed this week. We are enormously proud to see that Friends, Families and Travellers report that over 10,000 people used their form to respond to the consultation. Every voice matters in this struggle. We urge all communists, socialists, and fighters for justice in Britain to lend their ongoing support to Traveller-led organisations and initiatives as we collectively resist this latest attempt to criminalise and marginalise Travellers. We stand together!


Current British Law regarding Roma and Traveller Communities

To understand the context of the government consultation, it’s first necessary to understand exactly what the law is and how it comes into conflict with the itinerant lifestyle.  In regard to British government law in relation to Roma and Traveller communities, I would first like to preface that much off the incredibly useful information here came from an informative presentation hosted by LeedsGATE, a Roma and Traveller organisation which RFB have been working with.

For much of Roma and Traveller history within Britain, travellers could live their nomadic way of life on the commons of England, which were lawful stopping places for those who were or had become nomadic. Even after much common land had been enclosed over centuries, there was still enough of it to make this way of life sustainable.

Yet the mid-20th century represented a major departure from this environment, primarily with the enactment of Section 23 of the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act (CSCDA) of 1960,  brought in to also deal with the hippies and New Age communities of the 1960s, giving local authorities the power to close these commons to Travellers. To no surprise, they enacted this with great energy, but then made no use of the concomitant power given to them by Section 24 of the same act to open caravan sites to compensate for these closures.

From here, the British state would seek only to further harass and persecute Roma and Traveller communities, on occasion feigning concern but never acting upon it. Such was apparent with the Caravan Sites Act (CSA) of 1968. While the CSA theoretically made section 24 of the CSCDA a duty that authorities must follow, what followed was the familiar pattern of local authorities refusing to comply with the duties and courts holding local authorities to be in breach of their statutory duty, with little, if anything, ever occurring. Power lay in Westminster, which the court would always defer to, and such a body did not particularly concern itself with the issues of the Roma or Travellers, not 60 years ago, and certainly not today.

It only took till 1994 with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act for the CSA to be effectively repealed, removing this statutory duty and suggesting that responsibility for providing sites lay with the Roma and Traveller people via the provision of various planning circulars, as well as grant aid for the provision of sites being withdrawn. There were many important parts to this act:

Section 77 provided the terms for which a local authority could remove the vehicles and the occupants residing within said area, such as:

  • If they were on any land forming part of a highway
  • On any other unoccupied land
  • On any occupied land without the consent of the occupier

‘With only limited obligations placed on authorities to "assess needs" of people living in unauthorised encampments but without a clear duty to respond adequately to any identified needs.’

Section 61 laid out the powers of a senior police officer in the matter, where if they ‘reasonably believe’ that two or more persons are trespassing with the common purpose of residing, and that ‘reasonable steps’ having been taken by the occupier to ask them to leave, that he would be able to make any of them leave the land and remove any vehicles or other property with them provided land or property were damaged, if six or more vehicles were present, or if threatening words or behaviour had been shown to the occupier, family, or employees.

With the Anti-Social Behaviour Act of 2003 came Section 62A into the 1994 Act. Section 62A exists alongside 61 regarding police use of power, further expanding the terms through which ‘trespassers’ could be forced off under similar conditions to Section 61, most notably if a suitable pitch on a relevant caravan site was available in the same local authority, and that should a trespasser disobey or return within three months, they would find themselves arrested and convicted of an offence, and vehicles being impounded under Section 62C.

It is also worth mentioning that Roma and Travellers who camp on the public highway may be liable to prosecution, either by the police or local authority, using their powers laid down by Section 37 of the Highways Act 1980, as they are considered ‘obstructing the highway’ without lawful authority or excuse, and can also be seen as a cause of danger to other road users via Section 22 of the Road Traffic Act 1988.

As the common law on trespassing currently stands, it is a civil, not a criminal offence, to be on someone else’s land without permission, and to evict a trespasser the owner must use issue proceedings using the summary possession proceedings in a county court or the High court.

Yet the Supreme Court decided that whilst a possession order can only be made in respect to land that is occupied, an injunction can be made regarding land that trespassers may occupy again in the future.

For many years, the practice of many landowners was to obtain possession orders against Roma and Travellers not only on a specific piece of occupied land but on all other land in their ownership within a large radius of the site. This was partially rebuffed in the recent case of Drury v The Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, where the Court of Appeal made clear that strong evidence of the likelihood of trespass on other areas of land is required, and wide orders could only be made in ‘exceptional circumstances’.

Wide injunctions are orders which prevent certain activities on certain land, ‘wide’ because they cover multiple pieces of land in the ownership of the applicant local authority and also because they are not made against specific individuals like most court orders, but against ‘persons unknown’, with virtually no limit on who they can apply to. The activities which are the focus of such injunctions includes not only anti-social behaviour but also non-criminal behaviour such as camping in caravans.

‘Strengthening police powers to tackle unauthorised encampments’ Home Office consultation (5th November 2019)

This therefore brings us to the government consultation, the 2nd attempt at such, given that in April 2018 the 1stconsultation on greater powers was considered unnecessary by both the National Police Chiefs Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners. A Freedom of Information request from Friends, Family and Travellers, ‘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.’ This hasn’t troubled the government one bit, because it is not concerned about costs or logistics, it is concerned about ideology, about attacking and persecuting the Roma and Traveller communities, because they have resisted more than any other group the efforts by the bourgeois state to settle.

As my friend Conway wrote in their piece I have a theory, the Roma and Travellers have faced unbelievable prejudice and persecution because they resist the two desires of the bourgeois: ‘first, the capitalist desire to monopolise the economic exploitation of what used to be common land, and second, their use of the nation state and a sanitised, mainstream national identity to crush resistance to this monopoly’.

On the 5th November 2019, the Home Office published a consultation on ‘Strengthening police powers to tackle unauthorised encampments’, seeking opinion ‘on measures to criminalise trespassing when setting up an authorised encampment in England and Wales’. Emboldened by the 2019 General Election victory of Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party’s increasingly brazen racism the British state has doubled down on its efforts to persecute those it deems ‘other’ to the British identity. Its inclusion in the Tory manifesto mean that the government has basically committed itself to these actions. As Home Secretary Priti Patel stated (Nov 2019): ‘I am announcing today that having considered the legislation in the Republic of Ireland, I would like to test the appetite to go further than the original proposals.

What is the current legislation in the Republic of Ireland which the Home Secretary is basing their new legislation on? It is based on the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 2002, which made both trespass a criminal offence and the act of bringing any 'object’ on to the land if is likely to interfere or cause ‘substantial damage’. It also made stopping alongside a road a criminal offence, and strengthened police powers so the police could act when there was two vehicles, equivalent to a car with a trailer, as well as forcing you to go to a transit site in another county, or else being charged with an offence punishable by a fine and/or a one-month prison sentence, and banning you from an area for one year, as opposed to 3 months. Conditions such as an object ‘likely’ to interfere or cause ‘substantial damage’ are particularly tenuous, as it removes the need to show proof that there is damage or harm actually being caused as a result of that object.

Thus, the intended measures to be introduced by the Home Office are amending sections 61 and 62A of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act to increase the period of time in which trespassers would be unable to return from 3 months to 12, to permit the police to direct trespassers to other authorised sites in neighbouring local authority areas, thereby uprooting entire families and communities out of an area, lowering the number of vehicles needed to be involved before police powers are exercised from 6 to 2, and enabling the police to remove trespassers from land that forms part of a highway.

Ultimately, it aims to turn a civil offence that becomes criminal when residents refuse to comply with a court or police order, to a purely criminal offence. Should you trespass with intent to encamp, you will have become a criminal in the eyes of the British state.

Nevertheless, the Home Office insisted ‘the legislation does not amount to a ban on all unauthorised encampments, only those that "substantially" damage land or prevent use of the land by the owner’. As many who have read the government consultation will recognise, the questions posed are deliberately misleading, such that the government could use either an agree or disagree to further their agenda.

For example, to analyse the very first question: to what extent do you agree or disagree that knowingly entering land without the landowner’s permission should only be made a criminal offence if it is for the purpose of residing on it? To agree implies an obvious agreement with the criminalisation of trespass, but to disagree can easily be interpreted as a disagreement with it being a criminal offence only for the purpose of residing, and the government could abuse this to suggest a support for the general criminalisation of all forms of trespass.

The whole consultation is littered with confusing and leading questions that you cannot honestly answer unless you had the amazing advice from Friends, Family and Travellers, a Brighton-based Roma and Traveller organisation that RFB have also been working with.

The likely effects of the Home Office Consultation on Roma and Traveller communities

Should this legislation come into effect, it would have many dire consequences on the Roma and Traveller communities. Without a lawful site, Roma and Travellers would be subject to continual eviction and under the constant threat of prosecution if they chose to pursue their traditional way of life.

As Marc Willers, a renowned lawyer who has fought for Roma and Traveller communities repeatedly, put it: ‘it would breach the rights of [Roma] and Travellers protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights [regarding] their traditional way of life and the positive obligation on the government to facilitate that way of life. It would [also] breach the government’s public sector equality duty under Equality Act 2010 s149 (given that the provisions would disproportionately impact Romani and Irish Travellers who are recognised as ethnic groups).’

It would lead to the seizure of their homes and criminal records, impacting children and their education, their mental health, and result in literal homelessness. This is especially pertinent given a report by FFT found that there had only been a 2% increase in socially rented pitches between 2010 and 2017, which they said was not enough to cater for the natural growth of nomadic communities in Britain. It has resulted in Roma and Traveller communities being in the midst of a housing crisis, which has directly resulted in an increase of 17% in unauthorised encampments, despite the fact it is estimated that the entire Roma and Traveller population could be legally accommodated in as little as one square mile of land in England. In Ireland, the Home Office's favourite case study, Travellers make up 8% of the homeless population despite being only 1% of the population.

It is also worth mentioning that the rise in unauthorised encampments came about from 2015 government planning policy for councils, which changed the government definition of ‘Gypsy and Traveller’ for planning purposes to mean someone who hasn’t settled somewhere permanently, a move which Dr Simon Ruston stated led to local authorities lowering the number of pitches they need to provide, as evidenced by the fact Bristol only has one permanent and one transit site, as well as disenfranchising Roma and Travellers who have been living in the same place for a long period of time because of old age, ill health or having children in school. Essentially, they were defined out of existence.

In fact, the latter points have been the reason so many Roma and Traveller communities have had to settle against their wishes. So, their children can get not only proper access to education but also avoid the relentless amounts of casual racism Roma and Traveller children face. Only 40% of Gypsies and Irish Travellers over the age of 16 hold any qualifications, compared to 78% for England and Wales. Pupils from the Irish Traveller and Gypsy/Roma ethnic groups have the highest rates of both temporary (‘fixed period’) and permanent exclusions. In fact, 1 in every 200 Irish Traveller pupils are permanently excluded.

On top of this, the health inequality remains stark, with Roma and Travellers living between 10 and 25 years shorter than the general population. Being forced to live on unauthorised encampments results in families missing health appointments or being refused access to a GP because they lack an address or ID despite this not being the NHS guidance. This is tied with the economic inequality many Roma and Traveller communities face, from racism and prejudice in the workplace to labour exploitation of such workers from bosses exploiting weaker English-speaking skills amongst Roma groups and their precarious nature that many find themselves in.

This is all compounded by the abhorrent racism faced by Roma and Traveller folk. In their ‘Policing by Consent’ report released in 2018, the Traveller Movement found that police officers they spoke to from 45 territorial police forces considered hate crime to be the most common issue members of Roma and Traveller communities report to the police, which becomes even more shocking when data collected by GATE Herts found that Roma and Traveller communities report less than 15% per cent of hate incidents to the police.

Local and National media are particularly responsible for perpetuating hateful stereotypes of criminality and contributing to the general intolerance of much of British society. From online bigotry and threats to physical attacks and vandalism, such as the torching of seven caravans in Melton Mowbray, to the words of MPs referring to ‘the Traveller Problem’, these ideological apparatuses of the state have served to create an narrative in which the Roma and Traveller communities are, even to children within a school, naturally seen as ‘other’, a problem that must be solved, apart from the ‘good’ British public and fair game to harass because of it. Thus, it is not just a narrative present amongst the more reactionary, such as those within the Conservative party, but one present within the supposedly progressive Labour party, who will also refer to Roma and Travellers as an issue, like they did regarding the Coseley Transit Site, calling it ‘a betrayal of people of Coseley’.

Dare I ask, did anyone check if Labour ever considered the many Roma and Travellers a part of that community? Or did they uncritically spew the narrative of Roma and Traveller ‘otherness’ yet again?

Roma and Traveller communities are not criminals, not delinquents as some of the most toxic media in this country would have you believe, they are people that want to live their lives, and would be able to do so if the government provided the sites with working electricity and water, but as the government has chosen not to do so, with many local authorities not having anywhere to stop at all, it has put the lives of Roma and Travellers in turmoil, and forced them to establish unauthorised encampments or onto the roadside with considerable environmental safety risks and costs, which the government has manipulated to create discontent with the rest of British society and justify increased police powers.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that while the primary focus of this legislation has and always will be against the Roma and Traveller communities, this legislation can and will be abused, especially by the British state, to attack squatters like the fine folk at this very place, homeless individuals, and even something as liberal and non-threatening as the Ramblers.

As such, it is vital that everyone from a whole range of political ideologies, from RFB to LAFA and GAF, can answer the call to action and can come together to unite and resist this sinister legislation, which will not only I’m sure personally affect many people here and contribute to the deteriorating state of affairs we all find ourselves in, but attack one of the most vulnerable and persecuted groups in Britain, the Roma and Travellers.

What is to be done? - What we can do as a political community

That said, by the time you have attended this discussion we have prepared, the government consultation will have already closed. So, what can we as a community do to both resist this proposed legislation and fight against issues like prejudice which Roma and Traveller communities face on a 24/7 basis?

I would first, before anything, recommend following two fantastic Roma and Travellers organisations, LeedsGATE, and Friends, Family and Travellers, who have produced a lot of the fantastic content and research that I have used in my presentation today, and who are actively involved in efforts to resist this legislation every step of the way. I would also of course recommend you follow both Travellers Against Fascism and Red Fightback on our social media, where we have both written about Roma and Traveller communities and the issues they face, as well as providing our own analysis on the topic.

On top of that, I would always recommend reaching out and getting involved with your local Roma and Traveller orgs and seeing how we can better work together, supporting and attending their events so that we may lift their voices collectively and get their perspectives the attention and respect it deserves. Friends, Family and Traveller are likely to get involved in a legal battle against the government over these measures, possibly crowdfunding such a challenge, and I would encourage people to follow this and help where they can.

There is also the option for harm reduction on our part. As some of you may be aware, many Traveller organisations, such as LeedsGATE, have been arguing for the policy of negotiated stopping, which involves local authority officers making an agreement with Roma and Travellers on unauthorised encampments. This allows Travellers to stay either on the land they are camped on or move to a bit of land more suitable for all parties. Camps will be given a set period of time to stay, undisturbed for up to usually 28 days depending on the local policy, and provision and use of services, such as portaloos and household waste disposal, will often form part of the agreement.  Some authorities also supply water where possible.

It currently only operates in Leeds, but has some remarked success and is a massive step up from the expensive, poorly maintained and unsafe transit sites, which come with the caveat of the police getting extra powers to harass Roma and Travellers in the areas they reside in.

While we earlier highlighted how the prejudice against Roma and Travellers is a cross-party consensus, from even Labour councillors fighting against Roma and Traveller communities, one language they both understand is cold hard economics. See, evictions, courts, getting the pigs to come out, this is all fairly expensive stuff for cash starved councils, and if there’s one way to appeal to a councillor and their often shocking lack of humanity, it’s pointing out that negotiated stopping saved the Leeds local authority and local police collectively some £230,000 in one year, according to LeedsGATE. Therefore, we’d suggest finding out about your local Roma and Traveller communities and emailing your councillors (and RFB do have a template if you’d like) telling them the benefits of moving towards Negotiated Stopping and how much it can save their councils.

Furthermore, there is the possibility of a rally organised in the future to raise awareness and show our solidarity with Roma and Traveller communities in Britain, to demonstrate publicly to the government that we will stand together and that they will face great resistance if they try to implement these measures against our friends.

And finally, I’d say a huge contribution we can all do is to challenge the prejudice against Roma and Traveller communities, such as referring to them as Roma and Traveller as opposed to the exonym ‘Gypsy’, a loaded term much of the community find offensive, which was based on the mistaken belief the Roma people came from Egypt. Even yesterday, I had an argument with my parents who said, ignoring the fact many of my friends do not like term being used, that the term was perfectly fine because Tyson Fury had on his shorts ‘gypsy king’.

What we must always remember is that the ways in which minorities choose to self-identify does not give us the right to use terms that much off said population find offensive, given how non-Roma groups will often use the term in an derogatory manner, a situation much of the LGBT+ community will be familiar with regarding specific terms. Just because one group is trying to reclaim a term away from its negative connotation does not mean it becomes an outsider’s term to use.

Given how casual prejudice and racism is against Roma and Travellers, the best thing you can do on a daily basis is to call out when people, even friends, use offensive terms or outright slurs, and challenge false narratives such as ‘they always make a mess’ or ‘they’re nothing but trouble’. If we are to help the Roma and Travellers, we must find deconstruct the toxic narratives that many people unconsciously regurgitate and recognise that they are first and foremost are our friends.

Thus, to end, Travellers against Fascism and Red Fightback stand in unconditional solidarity with the Roma and Traveller communities in their struggle for dignity and human rights. We cannot achieve liberation for one unless we have achieved liberation for all. And we hope today marks the first step in a wider effort to fightback against the British state and its crusade against those it deems the other.

Bahtalo Romano Dive!