The issue of Travellers is an emotive one, and one that occurs every summer in our beautiful county. I call it “Groundhog Day” because every year the same issues arise.
So let me explain the issues, and show how the police work with local authorities on the issue of unlawful encampments within the legislative framework available.
Under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (CJPOA) (1994), Dorset Police has powers to deal with unlawful encampments. Section 61 provides a power to the police to direct people to leave land, albeit only when certain conditions apply. These conditions include where specified offences are committed, or when a certain number of vehicles are present. Not only must these conditions be met before the power can be used, but the legislation specifically provides discretion in the use of that power; it is a provision they ‘may’ use not ‘must’ use.
Parliament inserted a number of new provisions into the CJPOA through the Anti-Social Behaviour Act (2003); Section 62A provides Dorset Police with a power to direct travellers to leave land and to remove any vehicles and other property from the land but only when a suitable pitch is available on a relevant caravan site elsewhere in that local authority area.
The serious shortage of sites for Gypsies and Travellers in Dorset as a whole makes it extremely difficult for Dorset Police to use the Section 62A power in respect of unlawful encampments. The lack of a suitable site does not make it lawful or proportionate for the police to revert to the use of Section 61 powers. As I am sure you will appreciate, the potential legal costs to the PCC were Dorset Police to make unlawful use of CJPOA powers are significant.
The guidance also requires wider considerations such as welfare, race relations and cultural perspectives to be taken into account by local authorities and Dorset Police in making decisions about unlawful encampments and that ‘every effort’ should be made to avert forced eviction.
Currently it costs the UK taxpayer over £20,000,000 a year to evict travelling people from unauthorised encampments; funding which could be more effectively used to build permanent sites for them to frequent.
However, 90% of Gypsy and Traveller planning applications are turned down on first request, which results in an estimated transient population of 120,000 across the UK.
I am aware of the impact that unauthorised encampments have on local residents and I can assure you that I remain committed to seeking multi-agency, sustainable and cost-effective solutions to this issue.
I understand the frustration caused by the restraints of legislation such as the Human Rights Act of 1998 and the Equality Act 2010 which have given Gypsies and Travellers greater protection against discrimination. Case Law has established that Gypsies and Irish /Scottish Travellers constitute an ethnic group within the definition of the race protected characteristic, and many New Travellers can also be afforded protection under the religion and belief characteristic introduced in the new Equality Act 2010.
Equally I recognise the counter argument – travellers have been visiting our county for over a thousand years, and we must respect their culture and deep rooted desire to travel in the summer.
I have met all the Dorset MP’s to lobby for a change in the law. Arguably, the “human rights” benchmarks need to be lowered to enable more sites to be made available. Equally, some feel that local authorities should be allowed to share sites.
Working with Dorset County Council, I gave evidence to the planning committee that approved a temporary site in 2014 to be opened for the summer in Piddlehinton. This new site allowed the police to invoke Section 62A that summer and last summer, and traveller issues in rural Dorset were considerably reduced.
As PCC, I tread a middle line between ensuring the police deliver the very best service to serve the local community and to protect the rights of Gypsies and Travellers.
Dorset Police now have a Tactical Adviser deployed each summer to deal with these issues with partners and to provide support whenever it is appropriate to do so with each instance being treated on its own merits.
However, it is clear that this must be within the parameters of current legislation and at a cost that can be afforded. Furthermore, policies and practices must be consistently and fairly applied across Dorset and must also be aligned with national good practice so far as possible.
Thanks for reading this,