Policing Bill: How the UK proves structural racism is alive and well against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Communities
By Menka Sandrasagren, Research Assistant at Minority Rights Group International
The UK government has introduced a bill in Parliament which could dramatically expand the powers of the police. Whilst many in the media have focused on the bill’s policing of peaceful protests, the criminalisation of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities’ way of life has gone largely underreported. Right on time for the 50th Anniversary of the birth of the Roma Civil Rights Movement, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 is set to dramatically reduce the rights of GRT people to exercise their nomadic culture, by making trespass a criminal offence and increasing the powers of the police to seize property where individuals reside. This racist law is the culmination of centuries of discrimination that will leave these minority groups even more excluded.
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are nomadic minority ethnic groups that have been part of British society since at least the 16th century, with an estimate of approximately 300,000 currently residing in the UK today. The use of the term GRT is meant to distinguish between Gypsy traveller groups from England, Scotland and Wales, Irish Traveller groups and Romany Gypsies. This differs from continental Europe where the term ‘Roma’ is most commonly used. A House of Commons Committee Report from 2019 examined the inequalities faced by the communities and found that ‘While some find the term ‘Gypsy’ to be offensive, many stakeholders and witnesses were proud to associate themselves with this term’. GRT people have been one of the most persecuted groups in Europe, with every modern EU state having had anti-Gypsy laws in their history. According to a survey carried out by The Traveller Movement in 2017, 91 per cent of respondents had experienced discrimination and 77 per cent had experienced hate speech or a hate crime in the UK. The 2019 Committee Report also found that traveller people have a life expectancy of 10-12 years less than the general population, with higher rates of infant mortality and maternal death, and around 42 per cent of English Gypsies are affected by long term health conditions (as opposed to 18 per cent for the general population).
The policing bill
The UK’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 will grant the police the most expansive powers ever granted in British modern history. Some of its provisions aim to enact part of this Conservative government’s Manifesto, which pledged to ‘create a criminal offence of residing in a vehicle on land without permission’. This will be done by creating a new criminal offence, with accompanying police powers, to seize vehicles where individuals reside, or intend to reside, if they fail to leave without a reasonable excuse, and have caused or are likely to cause significant damage, disruption or distress, which includes anti-social behaviour. This criminalises individuals by making them liable to three months in prison or a fine of £2,500. Furthermore, the Bill amends the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 by broadening the ‘list of harms’ that can lead to an order to leave the site, as well as increases the period for which persons cannot return to the site, from three to twelve months. Even more egregiously, it reduces the number of vehicles permitted on the land from six to one, effectively criminalising the ability for the GRT community to congregate.
Jake Bowers, a Roma journalist, activist and filmmaker, has called this Bill ‘the final nail in the coffin for nomadic life in this country’. In an interview on an episode of Novara Media’s Tysky Sour, he said: ‘We live a life of civil disobedience. Our entire existence has been made illegal. And it’s going to be made even more illegal by the Tories.’ The reality of this cannot be understated as the GRT community has experienced systematic shut downs of sites and accommodations that they are allowed on, which was made worse by the 2015 Planning Policy for Traveller Sites. By 2019, there was a decrease of the number of sites they can stop on by 75 per cent. Shortages of sites have meant that many travellers have had to stop on unauthorised lands, raising the risk of conflict with local councils and communities. The amendment of the 1994 Act, to increase the period that they cannot return to a site from three to twelve months, will have a devastating impact on their ability to keep travelling, which is central to their culture. This amendment comes against the backdrop of a political void when it comes to actively advocating for GRT rights – no major British party has taken engagements in favour of the community, with a Labour MP recently promising in a leaflet to address ‘traveller incursions’.
An increased police power to seize the vehicles of the GRT community will mean that they are effectively rendered homeless, forcing them into more precarity. GRT culture puts a strong emphasis on family and community networks: the reduction from six permitted vehicles on land to one will completely prevent them from fostering these close community networks and their ability to both socially and politically organise. As Luke Smith writes in Open Democracy, ‘If both parents are sentenced to prison, for example, or lose their home, what happens to the children?’
A way forward?
Following the UK government’s recently released report on structural racism in Britain, which claimed that there is no widespread institutional racism, is this really the way forward? In this era of ‘post-structural racism’ in British society, which is lauded as a ‘model’ of racial tolerance for the entire world, how can legislation be passed that would systemically and structurally devastate minority ethnic groups’ entire way of life? Does Britain actually have a blind spot for race and ethnicity in its institutions? Or is this, in fact, yet another iteration of Britain’s inability to come to terms with its racist past and present? If this bill passes through at third reading in May, there will be no doubt left that institutional racism is alive and well in Britain.
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