Inside Parliament: Bishop joins in defence of nomadic way of life: Peers attack 'criminalisation of gypsies' - Home Office minister says travellers must stay within law

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Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Rev David Sheppard, last night joined Labour and Liberal Democrat peers in accusing the Government of striking at the nomadic way of life and exposing gypsies to further prejudice.

'A civilised country is properly measured by how it treats its minorities and particularly minorities who for various reasons may have attracted unpopularity,' he said in a committee-stage debate on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.

Among a series of clauses that have angered rights campaigners are ones removing from local authorities their legal responsibility to provide sites for gypsies and giving them new powers to evict unauthorised campers. A move to restrict the ability to 'move on' gypsies to councils which provided proper sites was defeated by 144 votes to 66.

Lord Avebury, a Liberal Democrat and chairman of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, said it was a 'thoroughly reactionary' piece of legislation harking 'back to days when gypsies were hounded from pillar to post'. The gypsy way of life was being 'criminalised' to placate 'a small but vociferous section' on the Tory right.

Bishop Sheppard said he was 'deeply unhappy' about the measures and illustrated prejudice against gypsies from the time when, as Bishop Suffragan of Woolwich, he lived in Peckham, south London. 'I remember when the gypsies arrived in Asylum Road, people said black people were given a rest, because the hatred of so many people was turned on the gypsies.

''How are local authorities to resist this kind of prejudiced feeling when they are not obliged to make provision?' He feared for the health of gypsy families and the education of their children if they were continually being moved on.'

He said the wish to prevent illegal camping would only be met if legal sites were provided. He quoted a distinguished Jewish judge who had told him: 'The gypsies of today are the Jews of yesterday.'

Rejecting the criticisms, Earl Ferrers, a Home Office minister, said the 'picture of repression' painted by peers did not accord with the facts. Nor were the Bill's provisions concerned just with gypsies but all illegal campers, including New Age travellers. We have no quarrel with the nomadic way of life, but nomadic people have to keep within the confines of the law.' Unauthorised camping could cause damage and great distress to landowners and local communities.

Only 37 per cent of councils have met the 1968 Caravan Sites Act requirement to provide facilities for gypsies. According to Home Office figures, 46 per cent of gypsy caravans in England and Wales are on council sites, 24 per cent are on private authorised sites and 10 per cent are on land owned by gypsies. Nonetheless, since 1981 there have regularly been about 4,000 caravans on unauthorised sites.

Earl Ferrers said the Government intended to reinforce advice to local authorities that gypsies should not be evicted 'needlessly' where they were camped on council or unoccupied land and were causing no nuisance. But he insisted: 'It is not reasonable that local authorities should be impotent to evict encampments on the grounds that an alternative site of the locality cannot be identified.'

It was 'naive' to imagine that gypsies had no place to go, he concluded. 'Indeed part of the rationale for the gypsy lifestyle is the ability to move from place to place.'

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