"Gypsies and Travellers and Unauthorised Camping"
Gypsies and Travellers and Unauthorised Camping Frequently Asked Questions (This is intended as a plain English Guide to an issue which excites very strong opinions on both sides of the argument but it is not an exhaustive or legally definitive document) Q I don’t have a problem with genuine Gypsies but these are just Tinkers, Scroungers, etc, etc? A Few Romany Gypsies travel the roads in horse drawn caravans anymore and, if you do spot a traditional barrel-top, usually in a country location, more often than not it will be occupied by „New‟ Travellers. People who have adopted the lifestyle in recent years rather than through family tradition. We try to avoid the pitfalls of generalisation and stereotyping but, for ease of working, when we speak of Gypsies or Irish Travellers we mean Travellers with modern, good quality vehicles and caravans who visit, mainly urban areas to ply their various trades. They are highly mobile and stay for relatively short periods of time. „New‟ or „New Age‟ Travellers are recognised by the assortment of lorries, converted horse boxes and buses in which they live. While they might travel in search of seasonal employment or summer festivals, New Travellers frequently seek long periods on each site, while their children attend local schools, or because they need to repair (or cannot afford to repair) their vehicles. These people usually have very little money, few resources and moving from site to site can be a problem for them. Q Surely Travellers are breaking the law. Why don’t we just evict them straight away? A As the 1998 Government Guidelines for dealing with Unauthorised Encampments stated: “Unauthorised camping is not a criminal offence and (the Government has) no plans make it so.” This is still true even though the new Guidelines will say that: “Unauthorised Camping (Trespass) is unlawful.” Trespass is a civil offence and landowners, including local authorities, have the right to repossess their property, using the due process of law. Q But they have broken in and damaged the property in the process. Surely that IS a criminal offence and you can just evict them? A No. The break-in and damage are separate offences to the trespass. If the Police were able to attribute the damage to one or more individuals, they could be prosecuted through the Courts, but their punishment WOULD NOT be eviction of the whole encampment. 1 February 2004 Q Why on earth not? A Firstly, British Law only (directly) punishes the wrongdoer, not his family and friends – or a whole community. Secondly, under Human Rights legislation, punishment must be proportionate. So, while it might be proportionate to fine or even imprison someone for criminal damage, it would not be reasonable to, at worst, impound their home, prevent their legal employment and disrupt the education of their children. Q But if I parked my caravan on a picnic site, you would pretty soon move me on. Why is there one law for Travellers and another law for the rest of us? A There aren‟t two laws. Everyone is treated the same in law. However there are important distinctions between the two cases and one is simply the way „ordinary folk‟ react to authority. If a policeman tells me to move my car – I tend to move. But I could tell him to, “go away and come back with the paperwork” and see where that leads the discussion! Secondly, you and I have homes to go to and all the other links and trappings of normal house dwelling. Travellers‟ vehicles may be their only homes and/or the source of their livelihood. Legal action needs to be carefully considered, not just against issues of Human Rights and Common Humanity but also against economic and logistical problems. Q What about checking their vehicles? None of them are taxed, they can’t be MoT’d and so they can’t be insured either. A The police almost invariably run vehicle checks on new encampments and Travellers are prosecuted if this is appropriate. Many Travellers‟ vehicles are taxed and, don‟t forget that no fee is payable for vehicles first registered more than 25 years ago. Most Gypsy Travellers have modern, well-maintained vehicles which are used to support their business interests. These vehicles are almost invariably taxed and have valid MoT certificates. There is a serious issue around some „living vehicles‟ belonging to „New Travellers‟, even though they are off the road for most of the year. The police will stop any dangerous vehicles, as they move between sites, and have them removed from the highway but, if an eviction is to be successful, arrangements must be made for vehicles to be moved somehow. Q What is the procedure and timetable for eviction then? A We operate a balanced approach towards Travellers (as suggested by case law and the Government Guidelines) and we liaise closely with District Councils and the Police. Whenever an Unauthorised Encampment occurs, the Traveller Liaison Officer visits and makes an assessment of the situation. If it is in a quiet location and causing little nuisance, a decision may be made to leave the campers in place for an agreed period. There is no point, after all, in evicting from one site to a worse one. If we can February 2004 2 agree a leaving date with the Travellers, that is in everyone‟s interest. They get a period of stability and we save the not inconsiderable costs of eviction. We do not hesitate to seek a court order if circumstances suggest that this is the best option. However, Gypsy Travellers usually only want to remain for short periods, while they have work in the area, so a decision has to be made as to whether or not legal action is the best way forward. Q We think that this is an intolerable site. How long before you can evict? A We know that judgements about „nuisance‟ and „tolerability‟ are purely subjective and that our view may not agree with yours but we have to work in the wider public interest. If and when we decide to take legal action, either straight away or after a period of toleration, there are still hoops to be jumped through. The Courts require public bodies, like local councils, (but not private landowners) to „take account of considerations of common humanity‟ and so we must carry out needs and welfare audits to discover if any allowances should be made before we proceed. Then we put our case together and apply for a court date. Assuming that we are granted our Order (and that is never certain) we then apply for a Warrant and book the Court Bailiff. It is impossible to put a time to this process but you can see that it is not an „instant remedy‟. Q You say that negotiation saves money but does it work? A Absolutely, although not in every case, obviously. Gypsy Travellers, who tend to visit urban areas to carry out their business interests of tree lopping, uPVC cladding, tarmac laying, etc., usually only want a few weeks anyway and rushing into court is money wasted. While these Travellers are working a particular area they will try to stay in the vicinity until the work runs out and so, if we evict early, it tends only to be to another, equally unsatisfactory location nearby. Q Couldn’t you stop illegal encampments occurring in the first place? Why don’t you work together with the police and other local authorities so that you know when they are coming? Then you could be ready for them. A We do work together on this and we do pass information on – when we have it. But there are a number of issues here and we shouldn‟t get the problem out of proportion. Large-scale „invasions‟ need special treatment and get it. But most of our encampments are relatively small and we simply do not have the resources to play cat and mouse with them. Not only that, Travellers will continue to be somewhere and, not to put to fine a point on it, it is no good the police chasing them from pillar to post. Sooner or later they are going to have to park up – and then the complaints will begin. Unless local authorities can provide suitable stopping places, Travellers will continue to find their own. Q That’s defeatist attitude. They have chosen to live the way they do. If we make life as uncomfortable as possible for them, block vulnerable sites off and evict Travellers as soon as they arrive, they will soon get fed up and try another county or get themselves houses and jobs like the rest of us. 3 February 2004 A If only life was really so simple. Gypsy Travellers have been around for hundreds of years and there is no reason to suppose that they are going to disappear in the very near future. „New Travellers‟ began to appear in the Sixties and are now into a third generation. Even if the law permitted a zero tolerance approach, it wouldn‟t work if everyone operated it because we would just be shunting Travellers back and forth across borders. Q Why don’t you put really strong defences in place to stop Travellers breaking in to sites? A That‟s a very good question with a slightly complicated answer. It is a national problem that traditional stopping places are being protected, to such an extent, that Travellers are being forced onto more conspicuous sites and into larger groups. They are also more likely to seek to prolong their stay if their options for alternative sites are reduced. Also, there are considerations to be taken into account when designing protective measures. They have to be economic and they have to take account of the other uses of the site. For example, public areas such as car parks and picnic sites must continue to give access to the general public but, if some access is allowed, there is always an opportunity for unwanted visitors to break in. If you think about your own home: Plainly, you do not welcome burglars and so you fit good locks and possibly double glazing or a burglar alarm. But you don‟t brick up the doors and windows. Most of our defences are designed to deter and to present a reasonable barrier. Q Is Dorset a soft touch for Travellers? A There is no evidence at all that this is the case. We have regular contact with authorities all over England, including our neighbours, and we all operate to the same Government Guidelines. It is true that some areas take legal action much more quickly than others and that urban areas are much less likely to tolerate sites for extended periods than rural areas. But there is no evidence of a „Honeypot Effect‟ in Dorset. We, generally, seem to have fewer Travellers in the county than our neighbours. Q What do Travellers cost the people of Dorset? A Everything that government and local government do has a cost and whichever way we work, Gypsy and Traveller Issues will cause some costs to fall upon the taxpayer. But, considering how difficult it is for Travellers to access any public services, they actually cost very little in the wider scheme of things. We calculate that we save the ratepayer around £400,000 a year through our balanced approach. February 2004 4 Q I don’t believe it. How does Dorset’s approach save that much money? A Legal evictions cost money. A simple, unopposed legal eviction of a small encampment will cost between one and three thousand pounds (£1-3,000) and a large, resisted removal has cost up to £30,000 in Dorset. And it gets worse – because if there are successful legal challenges in the High Court (as with the Weymouth case in 2001) the costs for us and the police keep climbing. And these are, of course, one-off costs. When we or the police move one encampment, we create another one – and the more frequently we evict, the more encampments (and evictions) we have. Q So you have a deliberate go slow policy just to save money? A Certainly not. We try to exercise a balanced approach and one of our prime considerations is nuisance to local people. If the position really is, in our judgement, intolerable, we move as fast as the law allows. Q But what about the costs of clearing up after an encampment? A These can be considerable and Travellers often do leave rubbish behind them but, it has to be said that the press often include other sums such as defensive measures to prevent a reoccurrence and estimated loss of revenue for nearby facilities such as car parks and leisure centres. It is also true that Traveller encampments in rural areas attract fly-tipping, much of which is clearly not attributable to the campers. Many rural sites are left spotless and there is no cost to the taxpayer but, typically, we might spend between £200 and £500 to remove abandoned vehicles and other rubbish after an eviction. Of course some problem sites cost a great deal more. Generally speaking, there is more rubbish left after a legal eviction than a negotiated removal. Q Is there any way of getting Travellers to pay for the damage they cause? A Under current legislation, this is practically impossible. Even if evidence is gathered, it is necessary to identify the guilty persons and arrange for court proceedings. The difficulty of tracing Travellers makes such proceedings uneconomic and, in the case of „New Travellers‟, who may have no property of value and very little income, there is little prospect of us recovering our costs. In certain, very specific circumstances, vehicles could be impounded but this can have the effect of making families homeless or requiring children to be taken into care. This is not „proportionate‟ in Human Rights terms and is not a course we would take lightly. 5 February 2004 Q Why are Travellers allowed to get away with criminal activity? A Generally they are not. The police keep a close eye on unauthorised encampments and Travellers often complain to us about harassment. But the police try to be firm and fair and, while proven wrongdoing is punished they cannot act against unproven allegations or assumptions. There is often an assumption that Travelling, as a lifestyle, is inextricably linked with crime but this is an unfair generalisation and it is certainly true that more criminals live in houses than in caravans. The standards of behaviour expected of Travellers should be the same as those expected of the settled community – but that cuts both ways. Whilst we want to know when there is genuine nuisance and will deal with it as best we can, we would ask that complainants to take a balanced view. We often receive complaints about the mere presence of Travellers with no tangible evidence of any nuisance at all. Would you be complaining if it was a neighbour‟s barking dog, smoking barbecue or noisy children‟s birthday party? Q I pay umpteen pounds a year Rates and taxes and these people pay absolutely nothing? A This is a commonly held view. Certainly, they don‟t pay Rates on unauthorised camping sites – but many people in houses get rate relief, housing benefit etc. Many Travellers are employed and pay tax under the PAYE system and, of course VAT is charged on the goods they (and we) buy. Many of the Gypsy Travellers who arrive seasonally, for short periods, have houses or permanent pitches elsewhere in the country. They will be paying rates, rent or mortgage payments at these other locations In many ways, Travellers are a lower cost to the taxpayer than other forms of social provision such as housing or temporary bed and breakfast accommodation. And, to be fair, they find it almost impossible to access the services the rest of us use with comparative ease. Anything that needs an address is very difficult for them and medical and dental care, refuse collection, postal deliveries, children‟s education and even steady employment are all problematical. For „New Travellers‟ especially it has to be said that if they are, „getting away with it‟, they are not getting away with very much. Q Why aren’t you demanding that the Government change the law to make it easier to move Travellers on? A The Government has now given the Police stronger powers to move Travellers quickly BUT ONLY where local authorities have identified alternative sites to which Travellers can be directed. February 2004 6 In Dorset, we are in the process of identifying alternative locations so that we can make best use of these new powers and also so that we can give clear guidance to Travellers on where they can and cannot stay. Along with the Government, we recognise that Travellers are human beings and that they need to be somewhere. However uncomfortable the fit with modern living, Travelling as away of life could not be prohibited, even if a government was minded to attempt it. The police already have Draconian powers available to them but these powers have to be used with consideration and a care for the consequences. 7 February 2004