What on earth has happened to Matthew Parris?
For the last thirty years or so he has produced beautifully written, persuasive columns on subjects from llamas to high politics, typically characterised by thoughtfulness, tolerance and moderation. Then, last Saturday he wrote an extraordinary piece under the headline “We should stop pandering to Travellers.”
It seems to have been prompted by the arrival of some travellers in a Matlock car park:
“… I’ve walked through the encampment many times a week for ages now. A scattering of Portaloos and wheelie-bins have arrived, more caravans recently, dogs on chains, and a string of steel barricades: the town is facing a serious loss of amenity and people worry — reasonably or otherwise — about security.”
Mr Parris concedes that the Travellers have done neither him, nor anyone he knows any harm. Nevertheless, “public anger is undeniable.”
His central argument was that “there is simply no place for the nomad [that is travellers and gypsies moving around the countryside in caravans] – in modern Britain.”
Mr Parris admits that the conclusion of his piece is “brutal.”
“So we should stop forcing local authorities to create Traveller sites, phase out the ‘ethnic minority’ rights of people who are not a race but a doomed mindset, prioritise with the utmost generosity the offer of social housing to Traveller families; and, to those who refuse it, begin a gradual but relentless squeeze on anyone who tries without permission to park their home on public property or the property of others.”
Mr Parris’s argument is not just brutal. It is also remarkably ignorant.
The law does not “force” local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers. If it did there would be some legal sites provided in Derbyshire Dales (the local authority in which Matlock is situated). In fact there are none. What perhaps he is referring to is the 1968 Caravans Act, S.6 of which did indeed place a duty on local authorities “to provide adequate accommodation for gipsies residing in or resorting to their area.” That section was in force while Mr Parris was an MP but it was repealed in 1994, so Mr Parris is only out by about 27 years.
Instead of clear legislation there is now a bewildering patchwork of housing, planning and human rights law, open to differing interpretations, and in practice relieving unwilling local authorities of any incentive to provide sites for Gypsies.
Derbyshire Dales District Council itself has identified a need for 6 authorised pitches, plus a further three which it hopes to have ready by 2034. Derbyshire County Council, the higher level local authority, currently has a mere 4 authorised sites in the county although a 2015 Council-commissioned study assessed that a further 17 were needed throughout Derbyshire by 2024.
And of course Derbyshire is not alone. There remains a nationwide shortage of legal places to camp. Local authorities’ twice yearly “caravan counts” show that the problem of unauthorised encampments has in fact decreased since 1979, despite a steady rise in the number of caravans. The proportion of Gypsies and Travellers living on unauthorised sites has fallen from around 50% in 1979 to just 12% in 2020, while in absolute terms the number of caravans pitched on unauthorised sites fell from over 4,000 in 1979 to under 3,000 in 2020. This does not mean that there are sufficient decently-run sites now available, or that Gypsy homelessness is not a serious problem. In 2020 there were only 13 permanent sites, and 5 transit sites with pitches available in the whole of England. There were nearly 1700 households on waiting lists for pitches.
So unauthorised encampments remain a problem for landowners, local authorities and the general public, but the widespread perception – contributed to by articles like this – that unauthorised Gypsy encampments are a growing problem to the “law-abiding majority” requiring “brutal” solutions is not supported by the evidence. That is a polite way of saying that it is informed by prejudice.
Mr Parris’s solution to these undoubted problems is not to provide a sufficient number of decently appointed, legal sites where Gypsies and Travellers can live or stay. It is to encourage ancient prejudices against the Romany and to call for their way of life to be “squeezed” out of existence. Couched in Mr Parris’s seductive prose it is nonetheless a call for something approaching cultural genocide.
The caravan is more than the Gypsy’s preferred home.
It is not just that many Gypsies would no more wish to live in a building built of bricks than you would wish to live in a caravan. The caravan is the very embodiment of Gypsy culture: central to Gypsy and Traveller identity. If Gypsies are prevented from living in or travelling in caravans they are denied the single most distinctive part of their culture. That does not mean every Gypsy is travelling all the time, or even wants to travel all the time. Almost all would prefer to have a permanent base.
According to Mr Parris there is no place for the “nomad” in Britain because:
“… life here involves having an address, being contactable, keeping children in school, paying tax on your property, accepting responsibility for a defined patch of real estate as proprietor or tenant.”
No-one much likes paying tax on their property, but Mr Parris’s assumption that Gypsies do not want an address or an education for their children is again sheer prejudice.
Depressingly, almost all of the 1200+ people commenting below Mr Parris’s article agreed with him. Many of the comments – and I doubt that they were those sympathetic to Gypsies – had been deleted as “violating our policy,” but a sample of those considered acceptable included comments such as:
“They live below the legal radar and do not abide by the same rules of decency and respect that most people do.
Poor to non existant (sic) education, high levels of criminality, high unemployment and truly dreadful attitudes to women make it a group we can do without in the future.
These groups are the most violent of societies and live by crime. Of course their children are uneducated; wives are beaten; medical staff are intimidated. The list is endless.
… [T]heir lifestyle is at root parasitic – it feeds almost entirely off the mainstream without giving back – or any intention of doing do – it’s all take and no give; all entitlement and no responsibility.”
That their children are deprived of education is the fault of their lifestyle, children moving all the time cannot have a settled education. That they die young, is also their own fault too.”
And Times readers are more polite than most. Elsewhere in the press it is easy to find, below almost any story about Gypsies commenters describing them as “filthy,” “thieves,” “freeloaders” “rats” and worse. The occasional slightly more liberal commenter might observe that whilst all these things are true of Travellers they are less so of the “genuine Gypsy,” a view shared by Heinrich Himmler who wished to spare a few “pure-bred” Gypsies while organising the murder of at least 500,000 whom he considered racial vermin.
How little has changed in 500 years. It has been the Gypsy and the Traveller’s lot to be hated, feared and misunderstood for centuries. The preamble to the Egyptians Act 1530 illustrates how little those prejudices have changed:
“FORASMUCH as before this time divers and many outlandish people calling themselves Egyptians, using no craft nor feat of merchandise have come into this realm, and gone from shire to shire and place to place in great company, and used great, subtil, and crafty means to deceive the people … and so many times by craft and subtilty have deceived the people of their money, and also have committed many heinous felonies and robberies, to the great hurt and deceit of the people that they have come among ….”
The Act made it unlawful for Gypsies to enter the country, and those already here were given 16 days to leave or forfeit their possessions.
Henry VIII’s attempt at ethnic cleansing failed, as did another Act passed during his eldest daughter’s reign in 1554, which exempted Gypsies from deportation or execution if they assimilated into the general population or, as the Act put it, gave up their “naughty, ungodly and idle” way of life.
Subsequent attempts to squeeze them out of existence have also failed. For four hundred years Gypsies were able to travel relatively freely around the country because (as explained by Mr Justice Sedley in a 1995 case):
“The commons of England provided lawful stopping places for people whose way of life was or had become nomadic. Enough common land survived enclosure to make this way of life still sustainable, but by the 1960 Act, local authorities were given power to close the commons to travellers. This they did with great energy, but made no use of the concomitant power given to them by s24 to open caravan sites to compensate for the closure of the commons.”
As Sedley J noted, 1960 marked the beginning of another “squeeze” on Gypsies as roads were increasingly fenced off from common land.
Mr Parris generously concedes that “there is a place for [Gypsies and Travellers], but no longer for their way of living. Is there a party, is there a politician in Britain, with the courage to say so?”
This is repulsive. We watch aghast as the Chinese Communist Party tries to destroy the Uighur way of life in Xinjiang, yet Mr Parris calmly advocates the destruction of the British Gypsy’s whole way of life (albeit he advocates doing so “with as much humanity as is consistent with telling a group of people honestly that their lifestyle offers them and their children no future”).
It is true that few politicians have been quite as explicit as Mr Parris, but Gypsies are now faced with a Home Secretary, supported by a large Parliamentary majority, intent on passing legislation that seems calculated as much as anything in the last 60 years to further the destruction of the Gypsy way of life.
Part 4 of Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a horrifying piece of proposed legislation.
To understand why we need to look at the existing law, and the changes that the Bill proposes.
The starting point is that under English law trespass has never been a criminal offence. It has been a matter to be dealt with in the civil courts. Mere trespass still is not a criminal offence.
However, under S.61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (the same Act that repealed the statutory duty on local authorities “to provide adequate accommodation for gipsies,” and introduced, by Michael Howard who did not become Home Secretary by espousing a liberal approach to the criminal law), two or more people residing on land as trespassers can be ordered to leave by a police officer; and if they fail to do so they then commit an offence. There are conditions, though, before the officer can make such an order. In summary, either the trespassers must have:
* caused damage to the land or property on the land, or
* used threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or
* they must have between them 6 or more vehicles on the land.
(Other provisions were made for moving Gypsies on when alternative sites are available, a largely useless power when they so rarely are).
If the order to leave is not obeyed police officers are then given the power to seize any vehicles. Crucially, however, any such seizure is temporary, and the owners of the vehicles can get them back, after paying storage charges. It was regarded at the time as a harsh law, and it has been used very effectively either to control illegal encampments or to criminalise the Gypsy way of life, depending on ones point of view.
So how does Priti Patel’s Bill change things? Again, what follows is a summary rather than a complete statement of the proposed new law.
There will no longer be any need to show that the campers have caused damage, or used threatening etc behaviour. It will be enough to show that there is a likelihood of significant damage, disruption or distress. “Disruption” is not defined.
There will no longer be a necessity that a person should actually be “residing” on the land before the offence is committed: an intention to do so will suffice.
Moreover, once these minimal conditions are met, a failure to follow the landowner’s order to leave – not necessarily, as now, a police officer’s order – will mean that an offence is committed.
Taken together, these provisions substantially lower the threshold for the commission of an offence. That is, of course, their point.
But it is the provisions for the seizure of property that carry the strongest echo of the sixteenth century Acts designed to drive Gypsies into a cruel choice between having their property seized or giving up their way of life and assimilating. The proposals in the Bill would permit a police officer to seize any property (including caravans or other vehicles) on the land as soon as he “reasonably suspects” that the offence has been committed.
Rather than being required to return the property to its owners, the police will be empowered to retain it pending any criminal trial. If the case is contested, of course, that trial might be months or even years in the future. Given that in many cases the seized property will be the Gypsies’ or Travellers’ homes, the effect of such a seizure could be to make them homeless and destitute. It is an extraordinary and utterly disproportionate power to give to police officers, exercisable on mere suspicion of the commission of a trivial offence in which neither damage, distress nor “disruption” need have been caused.
And it does not stop there: the Bill also entitles the police to seize any vehicle “wherever located” which an officer “reasonably suspects” the Gypsy intends to have with them on the land. The police will be able – with no court order and on mere suspicion of an “intent” – to seize cars and caravans which have not been used at all and might be hundreds of miles away.
Once seized the owners will not be able to get their property back until the conclusion of the court case. At that point, the Court will be able to decide between ordering the permanent forfeiture of any property seized, or not making any such order when the police will finally have to return it. By then families will have been made homeless, their children perhaps taken into care, and their lives turned upside down. It is easy to see how the threat of such action will further discourage Gypsies from travelling at all, although there will be some who have no choice. It is also easy to see how others, faced with a flagrantly unjust law, crafted to destroy their culture and way of life, may not always meekly surrender.
Ms Patel’s attack on Gypsies is not supported by the Police, who have every interest in preventing public disorder but none in becoming the agents of the state in a cultural war against Gypsies. A Home Office consultation in 2018 asked, amongst other questions:
“Do you consider that the Government should consider criminalising unauthorised encampments in addition to the offence of aggravated trespass?”
84% of police respondents answered “No.” The National Police Chiefs Council explained why:
“We believe that criminalising unauthorised encampments is not acceptable. Complete criminalisation of trespass would likely lead to legal action in terms of incompatibility with regard to the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Public Sector Equality Duty under the Equality Act 2010, most likely on the grounds of how could such an increase in powers be proportionate and reasonable when there are insufficient pitches and stopping places?”
A further consultation in 2019 asked, amongst other things, whether the Police should be given powers to seize the property of trespassers residing on land. The Association of Police and Crime Commissioners Officers was distinctly lukewarm:
“If this power were to be introduced, we believe that it should be used with caution and only in extreme circumstances.
A number of colleagues outlined their concerns to me that the seizure of property such as vehicles could be counterproductive, and result in individuals who may reside in these vehicles (e.g. caravans) being rendered effectively homeless, Not only would this impact adversely on the individuals concerned but would also create a greater burden on the police in terms of storing the seized property, and also local authorities in terms of rehousing people whose property has been seized. Indeed prevention of homelessness is a local authority responsibility: the removal of a residence would appear to be in contravention of this duty, and potentially human rights legislation.”
Even in the dry bureaucratic language of the Crime Commissioners’ response to a government consultation, the evil of a proposed law permitting the police to confiscate the homes of the poor shines through.