Leading Article: A law that threatens to tie down the nomads

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UNTIL now the law has been fairly even-handed in its treatment of gypsies. It recognises the suspicion and hostility that nomadic life arouses in the majority who live in houses. But it also values the right of gypsies to pursue a lifestyle, rich in culture, that has survived for centuries.

Yet this relatively successful compromise is apparently to be abandoned. Legislation before the House of Commons will, if passed, criminalise gypsies simply for living as they have done for generations. Families will be faced with the choice of leaving the road or being constantly moved on with almost nowhere to stop. They are likely to find themselves hounded by the police, subjected to endless fines and confiscations, with little prospect of offering their children a stable life.

The changes, tucked away in the Criminal Justice Bill, would repeal provisions in the Caravan Sites Act 1968 that require local authorities to establish legal sites for gypsies. That law also empowers councils to evict those who camp illegally elsewhere.

The historic compromise between settled people and gypsies has been less than perfect. Many authorities, in deference to local opposition, fail to provide enough legal sites, and gypsies sometimes refuse to be confined to what is often derelict land with poor facilities. But an occasionally fraught modus vivendi has been achieved.

This delicate balance is now to be destroyed. Councils will no longer have to provide legal sites. Instead, gypsies will be expected to find private plots, in most cases a practical impossibility given the difficulties of gaining planning permission. Alternatively, they will be encouraged to choose brick homes, which are anathema to the travelling lifestyle. This option would only lengthen council waiting lists, increase the cost of housing benefit and break up extended families.

The consequences of the new legislation will be the victimisation of a community, cornered by a government that cannot accept their non-conformism. Not surprisingly, gypsies claim that they are being ethnically cleansed and draw comparisons with events in Bosnia.

Such parallels are alarmist. But they demonstrate the fear these embattled people feel about legislation that should be dropped as illiberal and at odds with the British tradition of tolerance.