Travelling families fear end of the road is approaching: Eviction and jail are threatened under planned legislation. Mary Braid reports

Click to follow
KATHLEEN JOYCE, 57, is proud to tell you she was born in a tent, at the side of the road, like her mother and father before her.

Dogged by discrimination and punctuated by evictions, the Irish travelling tradition has never been easy. But Mrs Joyce, mother of seven and grandmother of nine, claims that 'draconian' proposals in the Government's Criminal Justice Bill will set travellers back centuries.

Under the legislation, police and councils would be given greater powers to evict and move travellers on. The responsibility of local authorities, under the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, to provide legal sites for travellers will also disappear - although that obligation has never been fully honoured. About 40 per cent of travellers and gypsies still have no legal place to stay and rely on 'tolerated', or illegal, sites.

Charlie Smith, chairman of the Gypsy Council, warns that if the Bill is passed, travellers will be criminalised, their trailers seized and many will be sent to prison.

At the cramped but tidy 'tolerated' site in Peckham, south London, that Mrs Joyce shares with her children and grandchildren, the travellers are appalled.

'It means it will be easier for them to drag you and your children out at 5am,' she said. 'It is increasingly difficult to get places on legal sites and when you do, you cannot travel in case you lose the place you have. We have eight trailers here to house the family but under the new legislation police have the power to move you on from an illegal site or impound vehicles if there is a gathering of more than six vehicles.'

Mrs Joyce's daughter, Helen, 23, who is pregnant with her fourth child, is dismayed that travellers may soon have no choice but to move into houses or create their own private sites. The latter seems unrealistic, particularly when local objections force almost every planning application for a site to a public inquiry. 'And asking us to move into a house is like me asking you to move into a trailer,' said Helen. 'Although we cannot travel like we used to because of the shortage of legal sites, the trailer is important. You still feel you can get up and go. Anyway, our trailers are better than the houses around here and there is already a huge housing shortage. Why add us to the queue?'

Mrs Joyce says any push towards 'settled' housing is an attack on the traditional way of life of tens of thousands of travellers. It would deprive her of the pleasure of having her children and grandchildren around her. 'This is so hard to understand coming from a government who apparently promotes family values. They are attacking a community that works and it has worked for hundreds of years.'

The new measure may go through because 'settled' people do not see travellers as human beings, according to Maggie, 22, Mrs Joyce's daughter-in-law. 'Somehow they seem to think we are a hardy bunch who do not have the same problems as them. My sister-in-law was evicted from a site when her baby was just two days old. Two of my babies died with heart conditions. One was in hospital for three months and I was up at King's College Hospital every day. God help travellers in these circumstances if the new laws go through.'

Frieda Schicker, project worker with the London Gypsy and Traveller Unit, run by Save the Children, believes the Government has chosen to repeal sections of the Caravan Act in the new legislation to stifle debate.

David Stazicker, environment official with the Association of County Councils, said it was concerned that the Government intended to end grants to councils which wished to provide legal sites. Private sites would not solve the problem. A move into housing might suit the odd travelling family, but not the majority.

Mr Stazicker said he was not surprised that the obligation to provide sites had come up in the Criminal Justice Bill. The question of gypsies and traditional travellers had long been confused with other types of travellers.

Leading article, page 19

(Photograph omitted)