A gypsy traveller campaign protesting against Priti Patel’s Police Bill was held in London last week — with its next stop set to be Appleby Horse Fair.
The Drive 2 Survive protest was held in Parliament Square, with those involved railing against against the Home Secretary’s proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
Coverage of the Bill has largely centred on the way it could criminalise peaceful protests and has led to “Kill the Bill” protests around the country.
Gypsy Roma Traveller (GRT) representative Billy Welch spoke at the protest and has written to Mrs Patel highlighting the threat the legislation would pose to the travelling community — saying it could criminalise gatherings including Appleby fair.
The Bill, which went before the House of Commons again this week, could give police the power to move travellers on from unofficial stopping points, arrest them or even confiscate their homes if there was reasonable suspicion their presence could lead to damage, disruption or disorder.
Mr Welch said police could confiscate travellers’ homes if they did not immediately move on when local people complained — despite there being a substantial shortage of approved sites, meaning gypsies have nowhere legal to stop.
He said members of the GRT community are anxious because the legislation is reminiscent of laws passed in pre-war Germany.
In an impassioned statement, Mr Welch said: “We have been here for centuries. We are British — our grandfathers and fathers fought in the last two world wars. They sacrificed their lives to defend this country.
“We are not society’s rejects, just to be treated like this by this government.
“The people I represent are anxious about these proposals and with good reason. They appear to be reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and the start of the process of ethnic cleansing in which gypsies were forced off the road by fines and imprisonment.
“Their horses and vehicles were confiscated, which eventually led to them being sent to death camps or murdered on the side of the road. There are still many gypsies alive who lost their families in that Holocaust, and they have not forgotten — this is how it began.”
In the letter Mr Welch wrote: “The Bill as it stands creates a new criminal offence. A person who does not immediately leave a piece of public or private land when asked to do so (based only on ‘reasonable suspicion’ that they have, or will, cause damage, disturbance or disruption) may be arrested, fined, and imprisoned and have their vehicles confiscated.
“Although the Bill makes no reference to ethnicity, this provision will in effect make criminals of law-abiding gypsies and travellers as well as homeless people and ‘wild-campers’ who live in vans, because the offence is in refusing to leave, which requires no evidence of antisocial behaviour, but merely suspicion that it is likely.”
A spokesman for the Home Office said it had engaged with GRT representatives, adding: “The vast majority of travellers are law abiding, and we recognise their right to follow a nomadic way of life in line with their cultural heritage.
“Unauthorised encampments reflect badly on the law-abiding traveller community — they can cause misery to those who live nearby, with communities impacted by problems such as being unable to access or use their land, and excessive noise and littering.
“It’s therefore right we are giving the police the powers they need to address this issue and the Government will continue its work to provide more authorised sites for travellers to reside on.”