Priority need for Travellers (taken from TAT News)

office at office at
Sun Jan 4 15:33:18 GMT 2004

Taken from TAT News (Newsletter of the Travellers Advice Team, part of the Community Law Partnership solicitors, 4th Floor, Ruskin Chambers, 191 Corporation Street B4 6RP).

Winter edition – Dec 2003

Priority need for Travellers

Following on from Margaret Price’s homeless case, a lot of Travellers throughout England and Wales, fed up with being pushed from pillar to post on unauthorised encampments, have decided to make homelessness applications. They are arguing that they have a ‘cultural aversion to conventional housing’ and therefore should be provided with a pitch or piece of land where they will be authorised to place their caravan or other vehicle. However, firstly, you need to establish that you have a ‘priority need’ e.g. you have children or you are elderly. In the case of Bob Myhill & Stuart Faith v Wealden District Council, we argued that single homeless (homeless because they don’t have an authorised site) Travellers are in priority need because, as Travellers, they are much more likely to be homeless than members of the settled community, it is much harder for them to find suitable accommodation due to the lack of sites, and they face criminal prosecution (under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994) on roadside encampments. On November 25th, Mr Recorder Elvidge dismissed our appeal in the Tunbridge Wells County Court. 
(The Travellers Advice Team have just lodged an application with the Court of Appeal, so keep an eye open for this issue in a future edition of TAT News). 

New police powers of eviction

Despite submissions from Travellers’ rights groups, the new police powers of eviction, contained in the Anti-Social Behaviour Act of 2003, are now enacted and we await the enforcement date. The powers introduce a new section 62A into the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994: if there are one or more vehicles parked in an unauthorised encampment and the police can direct them to available, suitable (presumably transit) pitches on a local authority in the local authority area they are in, then, if they do not move there, they will be subject to an effective 3 month ban from that local authority area with all the consequent disruption to schooling, health care, jobs ..etc. While TAT welcome the direct link between unauthorised encampments and the need for sites, we remain very concerned due to the speed with which police evictions always take place. This speed of eviction may make it extremely difficult for Travellers to challenge the situation if, for example, they feel that the pitches offered are not suitable or are not available.

At the Travellers’ Advice Team we are also using this period until January to put in place a swift system applying fairly immediately for injunctions. Therefore, when the powers come into force we will be very interested in hearing of cases of alleged abuse or misuse of those powers. From our day to day work over the years on the current (and continuing) police powers, we know that, unfortunately, they are frequently misused. For example, the guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers (drawing on a case we took in 1998 and the earlier Home Office Circular 45/94) makes clear that police must take account of welfare considerations before they use their powers. In many cases they do not (we recently obtained an injunction against a police force in such circumstances – we will be kind to them and not mention which one since they are hardly a solitary example).  In the meantime, we have a message for the police, for local authorities and for the government.

For the police, please ensure that, where a local authority does not have sufficient (or any)  transit or emergency provision, you make it clear to them that you will not be using these powers.

For local authorities, if you are not already doing so, urgently put into place mechanisms for providing such sites. From our work we are aware of much disused and under-used land throughout England and Wales (and we don’t mean on former rubbish dumps or next to sewage works or other unsuitable locations).

For the government, realistically, if the call in the Niner Report for 1,000 to 2,000 permanent pitches and 2,000 to 2,500 transit pitches by 2007 is going to be achieved you must bring back both the duty to provide sites (which was working until it was repealed by the 1994 Act) and the grant provision (and much more than the relatively paltry amount now included within the Gypsy Sites Refurbishment Grant). Even the National Farmers’ Union, within an amazing, inaccurate and ranting report recently produced has at least nodded in the direction of site provision – though it seems that the NFU would much prefer to make it compulsory to force Travellers into housing (not said directly but there by implication).

And presuming that all this might not be in position in time for the enactment of the new powers (ha ha), we’ll be ready to take vigorous court action where necessary. Indeed the fact of the continuing ban might mean that, while we don’t have time to stop the immediate eviction, we can thereafter seek to prevent any further evictions where we feel there is a meritorious public law challenge. 

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