Criminally Different

Travelling people are being hounded out of existence

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 4th November 1999.

Four months ago, when Jack Straw claimed that there has been “too much tolerance of travellers”, he declared open season on some of Britain’s most vulnerable people. Soon after his remarks were publicised, caravans in which children were sleeping had their windows stoved in with bricks. A truck in which travellers had made their home was set alight. Police have attempted summary evictions without regard for the law.

There is nothing new about vigilante attacks on travellers. I have a thick file of incidents from the past few years: of shotguns being fired into caravans at night, of petrol bombings, of travellers’ dogs being blinded with sharp sticks and of the police taking advantage of public indifference to beat the living daylights out of innocent people. It was not hard to predict that Mr Straw’s comments were likely to validate and encourage such assaults. But the Home Secretary has discovered that Middle England loves him for hating travellers.

On Monday the Home Office minister Paul Boateng told parliament that “the Home Secretary’s remarks did strike a chord throughout the country”. Encouraged by the response, he was considering measures to “strengthen the hand of both local authorities and police.”

The government will be hard put to make life for travellers in Britain much worse. Since 1994, local authorities have enjoyed new powers to remove them from places in which they have camped without the owner’s permission. Unless the campers comply with the eviction orders “as soon as practicable” they will be committing a criminal offence.

While councils were armed with a legal duty to evict travellers, they were relieved of the legal duty to accommodate them. The 1968 Caravans Act, which obliged local authorities to find sites for migratory people, was repealed, and new regulatory barriers were raised to discourage voluntary attempts by councils to make room for them.

Officially, the Labour government is committed to a policy of respect for travellers. “A nomadic way of life is legitimate,” Home Office guidelines insist. “Gypsies and Travellers should be accommodated and ‘tolerated’ wherever practicable”. But the guidelines have no legal force. Mr Boateng’s latest announcement appears to presage the revocation even of this feeble protection.

Migratory people have been living in Britain since the Palaeolithic. They have been persecuted for centuries. A law passed in 1554, establishing that anyone found to be either an “Aegyptian” or “pretended Aegyptian” could be executed, stayed on the statute books until 1789. Travellers, remarkably, survived, and they also survived the persecution and enclosure that followed the repeal of that act. It was not until Margaret Thatcher came to power that their complete extermination became possible.

A study by the Community Architecture Group shows that, in the counties it surveyed, 67 per cent of traditional travellers’ sites disappeared between 1986 and 1993. Some of them had provided shelter for thousands of years: this was perhaps the longest continuous land-use of any kind in Britain. While the old stopping places were sealed off, there was no means of establishing new ones. When it repealed the Caravan Sites Act, the Home Office told travellers that they should set up their own sites. They had been trying to do just this for years but, as the government knew perfectly well, the great majority had been refused planning permission. In the few cases in which local authorities allowed them to stay, central government overturned their decisions.

What this means in practice is that travellers are, once more, constitutionally criminal. Their very existence is illegal. Without lawful places to stop, they can be hounded from county to county and evicted wherever they pull up. Even the generous landlords who allow them to stay on their property have been threatened with prosecution.

The Labour government, like the Tories, is pursuing a straightforward policy of assimilation. People who do not conform to social norms, who are, in other words, not like us, are forced to lose their alternative identity and live like everyone else. If they refuse, they become criminally different. The policy is justified by repeated allegations of criminality, though the Home Office is unable to point to any research showing that travellers as a group are worse than the rest of us.

The government’s policy appeals to the worst instincts of Middle England: its complacency and vindictiveness, its closing of ranks against the outsider, its intolerance of understanding and compassion. But, as Jack Straw knows only too well, kicking the poor and weak has always played well with the prosperous.