On 3 March, 2022 the Derbyshire Times ran a short item in the News in Brief section entitled ‘Taskforce to deliver swift action on illegal encampments’. It featured Derbyshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Angelique Foster, the North East Derbyshire MP Lee Rowley, plus some unnamed officers of North East Derbyshire District Council. They were meeting to agree terms for a ‘rapid reaction taskforce’ which would make it easier and quicker to intervene in response to illegal encampments.
It quoted PCC Foster as saying “Illegal encampments cause significant concern among our communities in North East Derbyshire and we must respond accordingly”. She also said “I expect it to reduce community tension and concern quickly and effectively as soon as it is reported.” Mr Rowley said “To have this protocol in place will, I hope, allow future issues to be dealt with in a more coordinated, and rapid, way.”
Gypsies and travellers aren’t mentioned by name, but legislation about them, in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently in Parliament, is clearly being referred to. However, the Derbyshire Times skips over a number of serious concerns arising from the proposed legal changes. Though they are British citizens of the United Kingdom, they are usually treated like an inferior caste because of their nomadic lifestyle. The Derbyshire Times report does not even mention them by name, but the statement by Foster suggesting that she expects the taskforce to “reduce community tension” implies, by not mentioning them, that they aren’t part of the community at all, making them non-people.
The Derbyshire Times taskforce item just makes me feel really ashamed about these things. Our elected officials, who should be protecting everybody in Derbyshire, are gloating about removing the human rights and way of life of a vulnerable minority, by Criminalizing them.
A disappointing attitude
In the 1970s, I worked for Essex County Council Estates Department in a section charged with finding sites for county council purposes. At that time, this included finding suitable locations for gypsy campsites, following government legislation. However, as soon as anywhere was suggested, it created a furore in the press about why such a site couldn’t possibly be located there, for all sorts of negative reasons. I often felt there was often an element of jealousy about this, a feeling that If we can’t live like this, why should they?
After nearly 50 years, the Derbyshire Times piece, though short, reflects the same attitudes, which is very disappointing. The current Policing Bill is removing their human rights, Criminalizing their lifestyle, yet they’ve been here for hundreds of years.
Historically, many of them used to travel around doing seasonal agricultural work, but increased mechanisation has made it harder to find such employment, so many of them now live in houses or on permanent caravan sites. But they still like to travel, sometimes in horse-drawn vehicles, and especially to the annual Appleby-in-Westmoreland horse fair, which they have done for hundreds of years.
The recent Channel 4 documentary 60 days with the gypsies by Ed Stafford illustrates the gross unfairness of the legislation.
Discrimination and criminalisation
I’m sure there are people who don’t always behave well – that’s a normal human condition – but in my experience, when you respect people, you get the same respect back from them. In any case, if criminal activity is going on, prosecute the people involved, don’t criminalise everybody.
We would not expect everybody living in Derby, say, to be prosecuted for just one person dropping litter, robbing shops or fighting. Criminalizing gypsies for being gypsies and camping in the traditional way is just the same.
Although there have been disputes about where gypsies and travellers should camp, when some places may have been unsuitable, the legislation criminalises all camping, even when causing no problems. This will be true, even by gypsies stopping overnight in one caravan at the side of the road (as discussed by Ed Stafford).
Punishment could be extreme: the confiscation of the caravan which is the family’s home. Stafford also discusses how impossible it would be for gypsies, sometimes using horse-drawn caravans, to reach the annual horse fair in Appleby, if they couldn’t get there in one day. This would clearly be a destruction of their traditional way of life.
Furthermore, even when gypsies are able to buy land and hope to settle on it to avoid conflict, they are very rarely given planning permission.
There is a better way
Research by Samuel Burgum and Ryan Powell of Birmingham and Sheffield Universities pointed to a much better way of dealing with the friction between campers and the bricks-and-mortar population who are objecting to them.
They say gypsy and traveller “encampments are equated with stereotypes of crime and antisocial behaviour” and regarded “as a threat to property that trumps any right to travel.” Decades of under-provision of sites, which has been driving unauthorised encampments, and anti-gypsy and traveller racism driving this deficit are also damaging, a key barrier to new site development.
But Burgum and Powell point out that there is a better way:
“There is a proven and cost-effective alternative that can foster a better relationship between nomadic Gypsies and Travellers and their temporary neighbours. “Negotiated stopping” involves an agreement between roadside families, neighbours and the local authority around acceptable use of a space and length of stay (usually around 28 days). In return, the local authority provides the same infrastructure they would for any citizens, such as sewerage (portaloos), wheelie bins and water access where possible.
Now isn’t that a better way for everybody?