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By John McGregor, translator and researcher on political violence
Successive waves of deepening austerity and state repression disproportionately targeted marginalized groups. In England, Conservative Party policy and legislation on Roma and Nomads is a particularly despicable manifestation of this phenomenon.
A 2019 House of Commons Briefing Paper on Roma and Travelers clearly outlines how various levels of government have abdicated their responsibilities to their citizens. The briefing identifies local authorities as the responsible level of government:
The responsibility for planning to provide a sufficient number of Roma sites and travelers in England lies with the local authorities, who are best to assess the needs of their communities.
Even if local authorities were in a better position to make this assessment, they would not actually be called upon to do so. Same brief notes:
Local authorities are no longer required to make a specific and separate assessment of the housing needs of Roma and travelers in their local area, although it is still their general duty to assess the housing needs of everyone in their area.
The result of this failure to perform the functions of government is a deep and chronic shortage of playgrounds for Roma and travelers. Some local governments responded by issuing a series of orders in an effort to simply remove Roma and travelers from their area. These anti-camping orders were required against groups of known and unknown individuals, and most importantly, against individuals who might join the group in the future. This inclusion of orders against newcomers was confirmed in the 2022 Court of Appeal case, and while it has so far been used to target Roma and backpackers, the possibility for governments to exploit these orders against anyone they consider undesirable should not be ignored, particularly as the UK continues to imprison a diverse group on More and more protesters.
Most people in England who identify as gypsies or travelers now live in permanent and fixed housing, but there are still a large number, over 20%, who live in a caravan or other mobile or temporary structure and need places to camp. Even without court orders, there are often no presentations available.
A January 2021 report by the charity Friends, Families and Travelers found that there were only 59 permanent and 42 transit pitches across England, with just 18 locations in total. According to the FFT, there are at least 1,696 families on the waiting list for stadiums.
To address its failure to provide enough suitable offers, one approach taken by the British government has been to attempt to define the problem from existence. In 2015, the government updated planning laws to change the definition of people with Roma status and traveller, a requirement to access stadiums.
Until 2015, the Traveler Sites Planning Policy provided the following definition of the Roma and traveler status:
Persons with a nomadic habit of life regardless of their race or origin, including people who have stopped travelling temporarily or permanently for reasons solely related to their educational or health needs, the needs of their family, dependents, or old age, but excluding members of an organized group of travel show-goers Or circuses traveling together like that.
In August 2015, the Department of Communities and Local Government simply removed “permanently” from the definition, meaning anyone who has stopped traveling because of a loved one’s disability or age is excluded. The government is not ignorant of the effects of this change. A Mid Sussex local government document on planning for Gypsy and Traveler sites dating from before the 2015 change explains:
National Planning Guidelines recognize the needs of Roma and travelers even when they have stopped traveling, temporarily or permanently, in order to enable cultural traditions of being Roma or travelers to be preserved.
Although the national planning manual no longer recognizes these needs and thus artificially reduces demand, the needs remain. Lisa Smith is a Roma woman who was denied planning permission and subsequently had her appeal rejected on the grounds that she no longer fit the required definition of Roma and traveller status.
Smith had already been living with her family at one of the sites since April 2013 and had applied to the council in 2016 to allow permanent residential use as a site for Roma and travelers in 2016. This was denied, as was the initial appeal. Applying the 2015 definition, the inspector found that no Smith family member fell into the new definition of gypsy and traveler status because Smith herself had taken up stable employment and had family members unable to travel for work.
Smith appealed the decision in the Supreme Court in 2020 but the court ruled in favor of the government. She has since lodged an appeal, which was heard at the Court of Appeal in London on June 29-30 this year. Judgment in this case is still pending but it is not the only current legal challenge against laws targeting Roma and travelers.
With such a lack of promotions available, it is not surprising that trespassing on private property has emerged as a problem. Having caused so much trouble, conservatives are also ramping up penalties for corollary.
The Police, Crime, Provisions and Courts Act, which became law in April 2022, made residence or intent to reside with a vehicle on the land an offense without the consent of the occupier. If a police officer or 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 residents who are not authorized to use vehicles, vehicles are their places of residence.
If the state decides to prosecute, it holds the seized vehicles until the end of the procedure. Even in the absence of a trial, the state can seize the seized cars for a period of three months. As it is a criminal offense under the new law, a conviction may result in a three-month prison sentence.
The Community Bill has submitted a request for judicial review in the Supreme Court on the grounds that the law is discriminatory and in violation of the Human Rights Act 1998. It clearly targets Roma and nomads directly, both in prohibitions and in their penalties.
One of the reasons the government gets away with taking resources from Roma and travelers and passing laws targeting them is that they are the ‘least liked’ group in the UK. A 2022 University of Birmingham study on Islamophobia sought to measure how positively or negatively people in the UK feel about different ethnic and religious groups. Despite the original focus, the authors discovered:
The surprising – and in some places, deeply disturbing – results show that Muslims are not the “least liked” group in Britain but Roma and Irish travelers, who stand out by a margin of roughly 20%.
The final results showed that 44.6% of the respondents had negative attitudes towards Roma and travelers, while only 13.7% reported a positive attitude.
Marginalized groups often face the harshest treatment at the hands of the ruling class, and this high level of public hostility makes Roma and nomadic communities prime targets for some of the most extreme examples of conservatives’ exemplary treatment of the poor. Through a combination of changes in legislation and policy, conservatives implemented a hostile environmental policy against a section of their population, depriving them of needed public resources and then criminalizing their response.