If I began talking about children with hearts heavy from exposure to prejudice, separated from their parents and forced to leave their homes, you could be forgiven for thinking I was referencing my past. I was part of the Kindertransport, one of 10,000 Jewish or partly Jewish children brought to the UK by Sir Nicholas Winton in the lead up to the Holocaust.
Yet I am not talking about the fear of the unknown that I experienced aged six, as I boarded a train bound for the UK. No – I am talking about children in 2021 who are British citizens. Children from ethnic minority communities as old as the Church of England, yet who must fight to belong in the face of constant discrimination. Children who, because of a bill working its way through parliament, could see their worldly possessions wheeled away, their warmth and shelter seized, their parents potentially imprisoned.
Part four of the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill will, for the first time in centuries, criminalise trespass. It will make it a criminal offence to reside, or to intend to reside, on land in a vehicle (including caravans) without consent. And it will enable the police to seize such vehicles. This means Gypsies and Travellers who keep to their traditional nomadic culture could have their homes seized.
This is appalling. It fails to address the fundamental problem, as identified by both the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC), that there is a “lack of sufficient and appropriate accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers” to rent. And it is not who we are as a nation.
When the Kindertransport children arrived in the UK there was controversy and it led to increased antisemitism. But leading Conservatives of the time appealed to Britain’s sense of fairness, compassion, tolerance and its proud humanitarian tradition. The then Conservative home secretary, Samuel Hoare, stated openly his intent to be at “the forefront among the nations of the world in giving relief to these suffering people”.
Compare this with today. Guidance related to the bill, states that, “the police, alongside other public bodies, should not gold-plate human rights and equalities legislation”.
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While our politics may have changed since I first arrived, I do not believe British values have. I do not believe ours to be a nation that can detach our own children from those of others to such an extent that we would happily accept a bill which could make them homeless. A bill that seeks to use the criminal law to address what is essentially a planning issue. That will trap people in a cycle of eviction and criminalisation. On the contrary, I believe we are a nation true to the values of Sir Nicholas Winton whose brilliance, bravery and kindness saved my life.
This is why I am seeking to amend the bill to avoid criminalisation, to ensure families’ homes cannot be seized and to ensure there are sites where Gypsy and Traveller communities can live safely.
How a nation treats its most vulnerable citizens is a litmus test for society. I remember how it was for me when I first stepped off that train. I remember the humanity of this country. And I am sure we are the same people, which is why I am calling on peers to vote for such cruel aspects of the Policing Bill to be changed.
Lord Dubs is a Labour peer and former MP for Battersea
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