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    Protestors gather in support of traveller communities in Oxford city centre

    Matt Schaffel reports on the recent protests in Oxford in support of Traveller communities.

    A protest was held in Oxford City Centre on International Romani Day, on the 8th of April, to highlight the impact of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill on Traveller communities. Organised by the group Oxford Stand Up to Racism, the protest took place in Bonn Square, opposite Westgate shopping centre.

    The group claims that “The new bill will make trespass a criminal offence, and give police new powers to seize Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller homes and possessions. Courts will have new powers to impose fines and imprisonment for trespass when there are not enough sites provided for people to stop legally.”

    Julie Simmons, a spokesperson for Oxford Stand Up to Racism said to Cherwell: “Thursday 8th April was International Romani Day and Stand Up To Racism was organising events around the country to draw attention to the challenges and discrimination Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities face, and how this will be worsened by the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The measures outlined in the PCSCB will further compound the inequalities experienced by Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, needlessly pushing people into the criminal justice system.”

    “The bill will make it nearly impossible for families without a site to live on to, for example, keep their places at school or to attend medical appointments. Already Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities have life expectancies between 10 and 25 years shorter than the general population. This bill will further exacerbate the inequalities.”

    “An enforcement approach to addressing the number of unauthorised encampments overlooks the issue of the lack of site provision – there is an absence of places where Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers are permitted to stop or reside. There are other solutions to managing unauthorised encampments, such as negotiated stopping, whereby arrangements are made on agreed permitted times on stopping and to ensure the provision of basic amenities such as water, sanitation and refuse collection.”

    “The definition of a Gypsy or Traveller in planning terms requires proof of travelling – without that people are not assessed as needing a pitch or get planning permission, but will essentially be prohibited from travelling by the new law – effectively outlawing a centuries old way of life.”

    “Stand Up To Racism, along with many other organisations, believe the government is stoking racism and people’s ability to protest against this with the PCSCB, and this is why we are supporting the next national day of action on April 17th against the bill by joining other groups to protest in Bonn Square at 2 PM.”

    During the second reading of the bill in Parliament, several Conservative MPs defended the bill’s measures against Traveller communities. Sir Paul Beresford, the MP for Mole Valley, said at the debate on the 16th March:

    “My constituency has a number of legitimate Traveller sites. The relationship between the settled communities and the so-called Travellers on official sites is generally harmonious. Surrey County Council and Surrey District and Borough Councils are in the process of setting up a transit site, with facilities, for Travellers. All this is very different from the frequent illegal Traveller invasions. Surrey has had hundreds of these incidents, and my constituency has more than its fair share. Over recent years, the numbers of these illegal land-squatting camps have increased.”

    “If access is inhibited by barriers, gates or any form of obstruction, they are broken down or removed, and generally damaged. The Travellers then squat on-site regardless of the ownership, be it common land, parkland, farmland, private land or even a school playground. I note that a number of Members are opposed to change and would prefer that this remained a civil matter. That approach has been an absolute, abysmal failure, with considerable financial loss to the local community or landowners. The legislative change criminalising this type of illegal camping is exceptionally welcome and has been long awaited. It is for the protection of local people – my constituents.”

    Christian Wakeford, the conservative MP for Bury South also spoke at the same debate: “Traveller encampments, especially the unauthorised ones, cause distress to residents such as those on Kingston Road in Radcliffe in my constituency, who often thought that the encampment had more rights than they did. They saw extreme antisocial behaviour such as their fences being used as a toilet or being stolen for fires, and they actually feared for themselves. I went and met them several times during the summer, because there was not just one encampment; there were two. It is about time we supported our residents and said that we are not against Travellers, we are just against unauthorised Traveller encampments.”

    Image Credit: ceridwen / Bonn Square and war memorial / CC BY-SA 2.0

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