Police keep tabs on the travellers

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The Independent Online
TRAVELLERS who drove on to farm fields for a legal festival in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, this weekend were probably unaware that their every move was being tracked by police across England and Wales as part of a national surveillance operation that has alarmed civil liberties groups.

Last year, the Forest Fayre was followed by an illegal gathering at Castlemorton, near Worcester, that attracted 25,000 travellers and ravers and left West Mercia police with a huge bill. There were 100 arrests.

Police forces nationally were determined to ensure that such a gathering never happened again. A national intelligence unit was established, based at Devizes, Wiltshire, for the South of England, and Penrith, Cumbria, for the North.

Now every traveller's vehicle is logged on computer, along with its whereabouts. An estimate of the number of persons in a convoy is included, together with details of any targeted individuals. Many of the vehicles and their occupants have been photographed.

Last Thursday, Cumbria police's Illegal Trespass Intelligence Unit knew for certain that there were 272 travellers' vehicles in the 15 police forces that make up its area. A board in the small office shows how many are in each police area and their exact location. Regular bulletins are circulated to the 15 forces.

Sergeant Peter Sharkey, one of the three members of the unit, said: 'We are now far better organised. Police forces will not be caught unawares as they were before.'

Details of the travellers were gathered during a 48-hour operation codenamed 'Snapshot'. Some forces used helicopters to track vehicles. Some were stopped and the occupants questioned by uniformed officers who established the identity of the owner and driver.

Liberty, formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties, is unhappy about the police operation and is considering taking a test case to the European Commission on Human Rights on the grounds that the right to privacy is being breached.

John Wadham, its legal officer, said: 'The problem is there are no controls on the police. The travelling community and those who want to go to parties are not necessarily criminals and they shouldn't be targeted by police. They are being targeted because of their lifestyle.'

The police are aware of the civil liberties issue, and argue that they are trying to maintain a balance between the right of travellers to follow their own lifestyle and the rights of communities not to have events like Castlemorton inflicted upon them. They also point to the fear that a large influx of travellers can engender in a community.

At the Cumbria centre, Chief Superintendent Sid Monk said that police forces had found that a crude policy of moving travellers out of a force's area without liaising with neighbouring forces did not work: 'These people are not in perpetual motion. They have to stop somewhere. If everybody keeps moving them on they end up gathering somewhere.'

Ch Supt Monk said that as long as numbers did not grow too large there was no problem. It was only when a large gathering appeared imminent that travellers would be diverted. Confrontation could be avoided before numbers became unmanageable.

'We acknowledge that many travellers do not set out to break the law. But they are catalysts for drug peddlers and organisers of rave parties and to some extent are used by them. We want to stop travellers gathering in such numbers they become a major policing issue.'

Ch Supt Monk said the police had a target list of those who organised rave parties, the 'pioneers' who illegally occupied land, and those with convictions for the supply and use of drugs. With most travellers there was little animosity towards the police.

At the Forest Fayre, local police had already identified targeted travellers. On the site there was barely a police presence. One officer said: 'It will be easier to pick them up as they leave. That way we avoid confrontation and we know where they are in the meantime.'

Tom, a traveller for seven years, reckoned that the police operation would be thwarted. 'Join a convoy for the May Bank Holiday,' he said. 'I can't say where it will end up. It's an official secret. But go with it. The police should be trying to catch some real criminals anyway.'

(Photograph omitted)