Ask almost anyone involved in the criminal justice system for their priorities, and they will not say, “More new offences, types and lengths of sentences, and further layers of complexity masquerading as action”; they will point to the backlog in the courts, the lack of resources for everything from legal aid to prisons, and the systemic failure at every turn from investigation and charge, to trial and disposal. Some measures in the Bill are helpful, but parts are oppressive and downright dangerous. I refer particularly to parts 3 and 4, which amount to a sustained attack on civil liberties, free expression and movement by an intolerant Government who are increasingly careless of the rule of law.
Given the time restraints, I will set up the case against part 4 of the Bill. Gypsies, Travellers and Roma are the most discriminated against and marginalised ethnic minority in UK society—indeed, the action of Pontins management reminded us of that only days ago. The Bill targets those communities, and it criminalises what has hitherto been the civil offence of trespass on land. It makes the direct threat of imprisonment and heavy fines for matters that were previously resolved through negotiation or in the civil courts. The Bill threatens, not just for the act of trespass but for an intention to trespass, to seize and forfeit any vehicle involved in that trespass, which in the case of nomadic people means losing their home and all their possessions.
Only 3% of Gypsy and Traveller caravans are on unauthorised sites. The police response to the proposals was unequivocal:
“trespass is a civil offence and our view is that it should remain so…no new criminal trespass offence is required.”
No family willingly stops somewhere they are not welcome, and which has no running water, waste disposal or electricity. They do so for the lack of either permanent or transit sites. Only 29 councils in England provide transit sites—a mere 354 places.
Evictions will run for 12 months, and it is not difficult to imagine a concerted campaign to exclude Travellers from whole areas of the country, contrary to the recent judgment in the London Borough of Bromley v. Persons Unknown. The judge in that case concluded that
“the Gypsy and Traveller community have an enshrined freedom not to stay in one place but to move from one place to another.”
Preventing that potentially breaches both equality and human rights law, as the shadow Home Secretary said earlier. The Home Secretary may not care about any of this, but many people do. She would be well advised to drop these racist and draconian proposals from the Bill before it progresses any further.