The families no one wants

The law that allows travellers no rest is a heartless one, they tell Paul Donovan
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The Independent Online
"Just tell people the way we've been treated," said Karen. She is one of a group of travellers who have been forced to move on through nine counties over the past three months. Their journey began in Dorset in September and now they are setttled at Skipworth Common, Selby, in North Yorkshire - but only until the New Year.

Many of Britain's counties have become no-stay areas for travellers, with groups being moved on time and again by use of a law enabling enforcement officers to make travellers leave a neighbourhood with little or no notice. Travellers and their advisers say the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 has had the biggest impact on travellers' lifestyles for 50 years.

Chris Johnson, a solicitor with Birmingham-based McGraths and Co, thinks the policy of keeping travellers in perpetual motion must be intended either "to move them on to a remote part of the Scottish Highlands or stop them travelling altogether".

The Selby encampment's experience was devastating for the families involved. A month ago, the group of more than 100 travellers was moved on from a Lincolnshire site. "We were moved six miles up the road and the police came in force and told us we would have to move again. People were tired but the police would not listen," said Karen.

The convoy of 30 vehicles then tried to join another group of travellers sited at Twyford Wood in Lincolnshire, but they became marooned on an island in the middle of the A1.

"The next thing we knew, the two adjacent garage forecourts were full of riot police in full gear ready to move in on us," Karen said. As they moved off, she said, CS spray was used by the police after a headlight on a police vehicle was damaged.

Other travellers' groups have had similar experiences:

At Castle Point in Essex, travellers were recently moved on repeatedly by police over a three-day period until they finally went over the border into Kent, according to Charles Smith of the Gypsy Council.

In Chelmsford, Essex, a travelling family described how they stopped to buy pasties at a service station. The man and two children got out to buy the pasties while the mother stayed in the van. "About two o'clock the same night, 10 police or thereabouts came and took my husband and two young children with nightclothes to the police station on suspicion of stealing the pasties," said the woman, who wished to remain anonymous. The family claim they were kept in the cells overnight before being released when the police confirmed that after checking the surveillance video at the service station they were satisfied the pasties had not been stolen.

The ruling Labour group on Brighton and Hove council has resolved to work with police to ensure that no travellers use any council-owned open space. A similar policy operates in Wiltshire, Devon, Cornwall and in Coventry: all have become no-stop areas for travellers.

The Devon and Cornwall Constabulary recently evicted travellers from sites at United Downs and Wheal Bury and told them a decision had been taken to remove anyone unlawfully camped from the two counties.

Sue Campbell of the Telephone Legal Advice Service for Travellers (TLAST) based in Cardiff believes there is a deliberate policy of moving travellers on from county to county and site to site. "It costs a lot of money for local authorities to keep moving travellers on. It would be far better if they provided sites because it is just an ongoing problem otherwise."

The 1994 Act provided a host of powers to deal with travellers, from making it a criminal offence not to leave land if ordered to do so by a police officer when damage has been caused, or where there are more than six vehicles on the land, to making it a criminal offence to camp without permission once a local authority has directed a person to leave.

Debbie Harvey of the Children's Society is concerned at the effects on children of being "pushed from pillar to post". The Children's Society has stated that "repeated moves with little opportunity to stop in any location will deny children reasonable and sustainable access to education".

Travellers will be excluded from the Labour Government's new deal policy on the deprived and beyond the remit of the Social Exclusion Unit, according to Steve Staines of the Friends, Families and Travellers Support Group. "People will be excluded because if they are being continually evicted they won't be able to commit to a year's training, six months of voluntary work, or a period on the environmental task force," he said.