Tories Create a Hostile Environment for Gypsies and Travellers

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By John McGregor, a translator and political violence researcher

Successive waves of deepening austerity and state oppression have disproportionately targeted marginalized groups. In England, Tory policy and legislation on Gypsies and Travellers is a particularly vile manifestation of this phenomenon.

A 2019 House of Commons briefing paper on Gypsies and Travellers clearly identifies how various levels of government have abandoned their responsibilities towards their citizens. The briefing identifies local authorities as the responsible level of government:

Responsibility for planning for the provision of sufficient Gypsy and Traveller sites in England lies with local authorities, who are best placed to assess the needs of their communities.

Even if local authorities might be best placed to make this assessment, they aren’t actually called on to do so. The same briefing notes:

Local authorities are no longer required to carry out a specific, separate assessment of the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their local area, although they still have a general duty to assess the housing needs of everyone in their area.

The result of this failure to fulfill the functions of government is that there is a deep and chronic shortage in available pitches for Gypsies and Travellers. Some local governments have responded by issuing a series of injunctions in an effort to simply remove Gypsies and Travellers from their area. These anti-encampment injunctions have been sought against groups of known and unknown individuals and, most crucially, against individuals who may join the group in the future. This inclusion of injunctions against newcomers was upheld in a 2022 Court of Appeal case and while it has thus far been used to target Gypsies and Travellers, the potential for governments to exploit these injunctions against anyone they deem undesirable should not be ignored, particularly as the UK continues to lock up an increasingly wide variety of protestors.

Most people in England who identify as Gypsy or Traveller now live in permanent, fixed dwellings, but there are still a significant number, over 20%, who live in a caravan or other mobile or temporary structure and who need places for encampments. Even without injunctions, there are often no available pitches.

A January 2021 report for the charity Friends, Families and Travellers found that there were only 59 permanent pitches and 42 transit pitches available across England, themselves contained in only 18 sites in total. FFT calculated that there are at least 1696 families on waiting lists for pitches.

To address its own failure to provide enough suitable pitches, one approach the British government has taken is to try to define the problem out of existence. In a 2015, the government updated planning laws to change the definition of people with Gypsy and Traveller status, a requirement for access to pitches.

Until 2015, the Planning Policy for Traveller Sites provided the following definition for Gypsy and Traveller Status:

Persons of nomadic habit of life whatever their race or origin, including such persons who on grounds only of their own or their family’s or dependants’ educational or health needs or old age have ceased to travel temporarily or permanently, but excluding members of an organised group of travelling showpeople or circus people travelling together as such.

In August 2015, the Department for Communities and Local Government simply removed “permanently” from the definition, meaning that anyone who has ceased to travel due to their or a family member’s disability or old age is excluded. The government is not ignorant to the effects of this change. A Mid Sussex local government document on planning for Gypsy and Traveller sites that dates to before the 2015 change explained:

National planning guidance recognises the needs of Gypsies and Travellers even when they may have stopped travelling, temporarily or permanently, so to enable the cultural traditions of being a Gypsy or Traveller to be maintained.

Although national planning guidance no longer recognizes these needs, and thus artificially deflates demand, the needs still exist. Lisa Smith is a Romany woman who was refused planning permission and subsequently had her appeal rejected on the grounds that she no longer fit the definition required for Gypsy and Traveller status.

Smith had already lived with her family on a site since April 2013 and applied to the council in 2016 to allow for permanent residential use as a Gypsy and Traveller Site in 2016. This was rejected, as was the initial appeal. By applying the 2015 definition, the inspector found that no member of the Smith family fell within the new definition for Gypsy and Traveller status because Smith herself has taken up settled employment and she has members of her family who are unable to travel for work.

Smith challenged the decision in the High Court in 2020 but the Court ruled in favor of the government. She has since brought an appeal, which was heard at the Court of Appeal in London on 29 and 30 June this year. The ruling in this case is still pending but it is not the only legal current legal challenge against laws targeting Gypsies and Travellers.

With such a lack of available pitches, it’s unsurprising that trespassing on private property emerges as an issue. Having caused much of the problem, the Tories are also ramping up penalties on the natural outcome.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which became law in April 2022, made it an offence to reside, or intend to reside, with a vehicle on land without the consent of the occupier. If a police officer or the occupier asks an unauthorized resident to leave and the resident refuses, or returns within a year, then they can be arrested and their vehicle seized. Obviously, in the case of unauthorized residents with vehicles, the vehicles are their residences.

If the state decides to prosecute, they hold the seized vehicles until the end of the proceeding. Even when there is no prosecution, the state can hold the seized vehicles for three months. As it is a criminal offense under the new act, a conviction could even result in a three-month prison term.

The Community Law Project has lodged an application for a judicial review in the High Court on the grounds that the law is discriminatory and a breach of the Human Rights Act 1998. It is clear that it directly targets Gypsies and Travellers, both in its prohibitions and in its penalties.

One of the reasons the government can get away with withdrawing resources from Gypsies and Travellers and passing laws targeted at them is because they are the ‘least liked’ group in the UK. A 2022 University of Birmingham study about Islamophobia sought to gauge how positively or negatively people in the UK felt about various ethnic and religious groups. Despite the original focus, the authors discovered:

The surprising – and in places, highly concerning – results show that it is not Muslims who are the ‘least liked’ group in Britain but Gypsy and Irish Travellers, who stand out by an almost 20% margin.
The final results showed that 44.6% of respondents had negative attitudes towards Gypsies and Travellers, with only 13.7% reporting a positive attitude.

Marginalized groups often face the cruelest treatment at the hands of the ruling class, and such a high level of public hostility makes Gypsy and Traveller communities prime targets for some of the most extreme examples of the typical Tory treatment of the poor. Through a combination of legislation and policy changes, the Tories have implemented a hostile environment policy against a section of their own population, depriving them of the necessary public resources and then criminalizing their response.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    Saw occasionally a UK TV series about Gypsies and Travellers in which you saw that they were never a part of the communities where they were living in. Never a good idea that for long term survival as it leaves you vulnerable to attack without help & support from locals as seems to be happening here. I thought that there were maybe only a few tens of thousands of Gypsies and Travellers in the UK but according to the following Guardian article, there are perhaps 300,000 living in the UK. Numbers are hard to tell as they don’t do the Census apparently-

    1. Carolinian

      Travelers not that much of a thing over here although we did have some pass through years ago. As I understand it British laws on vagrancy are a lot more liberal than here and I’ve mentioned the British film The Lady in the Van where Maggie Smith lives on the street for years in a van in a posh neighborhood.

      So going by the above seems like yet another instance of Blighty becoming more like us.

    2. Joe Well

      If you settle into a place long term you will not be much protected from displacement or supported by locals. Instead, even if you hang on, your children and many friends will move far away as they cannot afford to live in the area as it is being gentrified.

      Of course, if you do not own your flat, and sometimes even if you do, you are even more vulnerable to displacement. No such thing as society under neoliberalism.

    3. Deschutes

      Rev Kev doesn’t sound so much like a reverend in this post; or maybe you’re a tory? I would think a reverend would come to the defense of the most vulnerable, i.e. gypsies as they certainly need people stick up for their rights. To the contrary gypsies have been part of british culture for many centuries, and got along well with the communities they lived in. This whole ugly NIMBY attitude towards gypsies in the UK shows extremely authoritarian, right wing and greed for ever more profits has come to pass there.

      May the gypsies roam the UK in ever increasing numbers for millenia to come! :-)

  2. Cristobal

    The great New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell, wrote a lot about gypsies in New York and New Jersey. They had a strong and populous community in his day. He wrote about the various hustles – fortunetelling, pickpocketing, etc that they practiced in the City, but also of the artesenal crafts practiced by the rural gypsies. Mending of pots and pans and other fine metalwork was a specialty.
    But even then they were losing their traveling ways and settling down in the cities. One of the principal gypsy cemetaries was in north Jersey (I forget the town). I have also heard from people who lived in the rural south of the 50s and 60s talk about seeing traveling groups – sometimes even in horse or mule drawn caravans. They picked cotton, did odd jobs, traded horses, whatever. Even then the horse drawn caravans were noteworthy as most used automobiles.

    In Andalucia the gypsies constitute a signficant part of the population. Not very well liked as a rule. Many live irregularly (without regular jobs) although that stereotype no longer applies to all. I personally know several families whose membes are college educated and hold professional jobs. That said, I understand that there is a sizeable group that still travel. Being a guiri I am not privy to all that goes on. In the cities especially (las seis mil) they are famous for very strong family ties – pick a fight with one you have picked a fight with all. Gypsies are still the object of discrimination in spite of th egovernment´s efforts for ¨inclusion¨. As such there are many who live by petty, and sometimes well organized crime. Their nomadic past/present affords them many international connections partically with Romania. The Gypsy/Traveler culture is alive and well here in Spain. I know that there are some other commentators from Spain and I would like to hear their impressions.

  3. Joe Well

    If you search airbnb for listings under $50/night in the US or UK, most of the listings that come up are campsites. They are charging a minimum of $700/month just to pitch a tent in a lot of places. The world that made a free existence possible for previous generations is mostly gone now. Quite a whip to keep people in line, too: if you try to leave your bad living situation, any kind of intermediate housing like motels will be prohibitively expensive for more than a couple weeks. Good luck, abused women and nonbinary people! Try leaving when you’ve leaned in enough to be making six figures a year. The large majority of people are living in an economic prison.

  4. ambrit

    (Meant to be a comment on Joe Wells’ comment above.)
    Uh, excuse me for asking, but is your statement that “..making six figures a year…” constitutes an achievable goal for American “travelers” etc. snark or a typo?
    Here down in the North American Deep South (NADS) such an income qualifies one as a fine upstanding member of local society. Perhaps you meant low five figures?
    Fully agree with you about how unaffordable motels and the like have become. The enjoyable recent film, “The Florida Project” showcases such a dynamic.

    1. JBird4049

      >>>Here down in the North American Deep South (NADS) such an income qualifies one as a fine upstanding member of local society. Perhaps you meant low five figures?

      Everything is relative. HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) for the past few decades has said those with low six figure incomes in the San Francisco Bay Area qualify for housing assistance; I would think that getting an income in the mid five figures is not that hard in the Bay Area, but the cost of living is much, much higher. Those with low five figure incomes likely are, or are constantly facing, homelessness.

      And it is nice to see that the Tories are matching the same fine skills of demonization and abuse of the vulnerable, the unwanted, and the homeless, often for political gain, as here in the United States.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Given that those skills of demonization and abuse of the vulnerable were brought to this continent by the organizers and leaders of English settlement to begin with, it should not be surprising that the people who invented those fine skills to begin with are still so adept at practicing them today.

        1. ambrit

          Don’t forget “La Layenda Negra,” (the Black Story,) the oppression of the natives and imported slaves in Latin America by the Spanish and Portuguese colonial regimes. All of the European colonial regimes were complicit in the genocides in the New World.
          The story of how the Dutch East India company terrorized and abused the natives in Indonesia in the Sixteen and Seventeen Hundreds is a horror show all its own.
          “There was money to be made and some unfortunates got in the way with predictable results.” Sound familiar?

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            That is true. And I’m not going “back” where I “came from”.

            ( Interestingly, the phrase ” La Layenda Negra” (( ” The Black Legend”)) was a literal effort by Spanish Empire apologists and Spanish Inquisition apologists to pretend that all the reports of “bad things happening” in the Spanish Empire area of operations were simply fake news and fake history made up by English Imperial information operators.)

            As the Native Indian Nations of Mexico and other Spain-established countries regain some power and exposure, they may begin to undermine from their end the fond belief that ” La Layenda Negra” was just a fake-history based legend. Here is an interesting meme-poster illustrative of the spirit behind that embryonic effort.

  5. bassmule

    Whatever their status, this is yet another example of Tories punching down. It seems to be their favorite sport.

  6. Revenant

    This article conflates three topics.

    1) “Quia timet” injunctions, injunctions aimed at a class of persons rather than named individuals, e.g. people who would climb a structure without authorisation. These are bring aimed at free climbers, BASE jumpers, protestors etc. By obtaining the injunction, the landowner makes the breach a contempt of court and a crime, enabling the police to step in or a private prosecution. It is part of the creeping expansion of private crimes….

    2) discrimination of settled people against gypsies and vice versa. Nomads in a settled society create problems because they don’t fit in. Their children statistically do not attend school, fall behind when they do, are disproportionately excluded, do not achieve good grades and do not go into higher education or into formal employment. Thus, the livelihoods open to them are marginal at best – scrap metal, building, dog breeding, horse training – and plain illegal at worst – cowboy builders, metal and car thieves, burglary, prizefighting and dog fighting, horse ringing (not so much these days!). And yet they observe strict rules among their own. The Daily Mail-reading general public sees gypsies as operating with a low-level declaration of war against settled society and consequently fights like mad to prevent them gaining a bridgehead anywhere near it….

    3) specific planning law in gypsies. The government has apparently removed obligations to provide for certain groups but this is just a small piece of the overall antidemocratic planning reforms, which now force local authorities to grant consent to bad developments because there are central targets for housing. Ironically, if there was more local control of planning, there would be fewer gipsy sites because the general public really does not want gypsies….

    To be clear, the planning consent at stake is usually a piece of greenbelt land, on which no settled citizen would get permission for a house, however pretty. A gypsy buys it and applies for sites for multiple caravans and fear is that soon the lovely field is all pitbulls, trailers, shouting and cars on bricks and the local police are overwhelmed with burglaries and hare coursing and the pubs are full of fist fights….

  7. PlutoniumKun

    Provision for travelling people of whatever origin has always been very patchy in the UK, for unsurprising reasons. Back in the 1990’s I saw a plan of the West Midlands showing the location of halting sites – they were invariably located in industrial estates and if possible, on the exact boundary with a neighbouring local authority. A local businessman told me a story of how one campsite received a major visual upgrade within 48 hours of the adjoining paint warehouse being robbed of all its stores.

    A particular issue in the UK is that there is a pretty vague conceptualisation of what ‘travellers and gypsies’ actually are in reality. There are traditional English travelling people (some claim descended from the Iceni peoples of Boadiccia fame), but they are mostly Irish/Scottish travellers, with a major admixture of Roma from Eastern Europe. The former are almost extinct, but there was a wave of idealistic young people such as the Dongas people in the 1990’s (basically, back to earth crusties) who were trying to reclaim an English heritage of travellers. I once spent time with some Dongas friends who decided to camp next to some Roma in a desolate area of post industrial Wolverhampton. The former were somewhat horrified to find that the Roma were quite content to steal from their English travelling brethren.

    As a dislike, bordering on close to murderous hatred, of travelling people of all stripes is very popular in the UK and Ireland its an easy political strike by the Tories. But Labour councils were never much better, apart from those in inner London boroughs who could make gestures without having to bother too much with backing them up. The other very significant unspoken issue is that stronger rights given to travelling people including good quality halting sites has often the consequence of attracting an influx of Roma, who are as unpopular with ‘traditional’ travellers as settled folks. No easy answers.

    1. Revenant

      PK – indeed. A plague on none of their houses, it seems.

      The inner city point is not quite right though. There is a large site in prime central London, strung out between the Westway and West London Line in Notting Hill. There is also another in Park Royal, behind my friend’s torpedo factory. This is Europe’s largest industrial estate, just off the A40 and with the misfortune of hosting some of London’s largest railway junctions and therefore rapidly gentrifying (Willenden Junction, Old Oak Common, HS2 etc). I suspect there were sites in the lower Lea valley in Stratford that were cleared for the 2012 Olympics along with the industrial estates there too….

      I doubt there were any in Westminster though, these are not the kind of Wandering people Dame Shirely Porter favoured….

    1. Sibiryak

      “Latcho Drom” — great film! Magical! Mesmerizing! Amazing! Thanks for reminding of it. I have a VHS copy somewhere.

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