'The State It's In' - Squall Editorial
Travels In A Political Arena
Squall 6, Spring 1994, pg. 3.
We are now on the short fuse to criminalisation. Legislation designed to establish criminal sanctions against both travelling and squatting have been crammed into the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill published in early January.
The Bill contains 117 clauses covering a disjointed array of issues including the removal of the rights of silence, criminal sanctions against raves, tougher prison punishment for young offenders, repeal of the Caravan Sites Act, and criminal sanctions against travellers, squatters and protesters. It also includes the provision of grants for security at party conferences.
The second reading of the Bill occurred on January 11th and the Labour Party elected to abstain on the issue rather than vote against it. The reasons for this stance were described as a manoeuvre to outfox Tories who had prepared speeches criticising Labour for opposing the Bill and being soft on crime. Instead, the Labour Party tabled an amendment requesting that the Bill also place some emphasis on crime prevention as well as punishment. The amendment was defeated 319 votes to 275, a government majority of 44.
Consequently, the Government criticised Labour for being both "indecisive" and "soft on crime".
The next stage of the Bill was its processing by a standing committee; 30 MPs, proportioned according to the seats held by each party in the House of Commons, selected to consider each clause of the Bill and to vote on any amendments to it. The committee was expected to commence sitting on February 25th. However, out of the blue, it began in mid-January, shortening the fuse even further.
Despite the fact that the consultation paper on travellers was dealt with by the Department of the Environment, despite the fact that the repeal of the Caravan Sites Act - local authority provision for Gypsys - is a DoE issue, and despite the fact that homelessness is a DoE issue, the Government have not put forward a single member of the DoE to sit on the committee. As a reflection there are also no members of the Shadow Environment on the committee.
This was bad news for squatters and travellers because it meant that the political debate has been swung even further away from the social reality of the issue, concentrating instead on tackling false criminal stereotypes.
The committee reached Part 5 of the Bill - trespass, raves, travellers and squatters - in the second week of February, and as expected the clauses were voted through with the Government majority. No amendments were passed, except those introduced by David MacLean (Home Office Minister and Michael Howard's career-conscious field-marshal).
The Labour Party actually refrained from voting on many of the amendments. The Labour front bench stance was to argue a few points but not too strongly and not in a way that risked accusations of being soft on crime. Hence, the Shadow Home Minister Alun Michael's objection to the laws on squatting were made on the basis of how the measures might affect tenants and licensees. It was left up to the likes of Neil Gerrard, Jean Corston and John Fraser to make more of the dire consequences for homelessness and civil liberties. Observers in the gallery had to sit on their tongues and watch a lot of very arguable points slip by.
On Tuesday Feb 8th, the Government slipped three new clauses into the timetable without any announcements of their arrival. The consequences of these additions are worse than the original Bill as, believe it or not, they advocate the right of almost anyone with an interest in a property, or anyone acting on their behalf, to gain violent entry to that property, whether or not the property is occupied. It removes the security of the front door and heralds the sanctioning of vigilante bailiffs and licensed heavies. These new clauses were voted through in early March.
Amendments are the mechanism by which any member of the committee may challenge the Bill. The SQUASH Parliamentary Group had already prepared amendments for the clauses on squatting. Some of these were tabled by opposition MPs, although the Labour front bench vetoed most of them in order not to be seen actually in favour of squatting.
There is nothing in the Criminal Justice Bill that mentions the ex-parte court procedures, except the introduction of the as yet undefined phrase: "interim possession order". These procedures will be established by what is known as delegated legislation - a set of rulings handed down to the courts by the Lord Chancellor and not voted on in Parliament. When these rulings have been written they will be the subject of a public consultation. This represents another area where the legal profession's dissatisfaction with the clumsiness of the proposals may provide some opposition. SHELTER, CHAR, the LAW SOCIETY and the ASSOCIATION OF METROPOLITAN AUTHORITIES all sent packages to the members of the Standing Committee, expressing their opposition to the clauses on squatting.
The repeal of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, also in the Criminal Justice Bill, removes both the statutory requirement on local authorities to make sites available for travellers and the enabling grants to do so. It has no place in Criminal Justice legislation. No-one at the Home Office will explain why legislation unconcerned with crime is being tagged onto a criminal justice bill, and dealt with only by the Home Office. Never the less, the committee voted it through unamended.
There is a group within the Labour Party called the Labour Travellers Campaign, which includes John Battle, Shadow Housing Minister, amongst its active members. But as Battle himself told SQUALL: “It’s whether people will stick their necks out when it comes to the crunch that is really important.” And there’s not much sign from Tony Blair, Shadow Home Secretary or Jack Straw, Shadow Environment Minister, of any front bench stance on the issues.
The Tory MPs on the committee were allowed to get away with some blatantly racist statements about Gypsys, without verbal challenge from the opposition benches. Neil Gerrard (Labour - Walthamstow) did tell the committee about the “Conservatives against Gypsys” leaflet used in the '92 election and reprinted on page 30. He was ruled to be out of order by the chairman for not sticking to the written amendment sheet.
The fence is now a position synonymous with the official Labour Party line on issues we were at one time assured, would be "fought all the way". The angle appears to be - let the Tories eat themselves and in the meantime we mustn't provide any reason for them to make us look bad. There is even some concern amongst more principled Labour backbenchers that their own front bench will decide that the party should abstain on the third reading of the Bill.
Peter Pike, Shadow Environment Minister, announced that he intended to introduce amendments on the traveller legislation in the report stage of the Bill (the process by which the Standing Committee report back to the main house).
On a positive note, and there's not many of these in the cacophony, the press and audio-visual media coverage on travellers and squatters has improved considerably (See News of the Sqews'). Old impressions die hard however, and the timetable is urgent - all stops out. If squatting is criminalised now, it is unlikely ever to be legal again at any time in the future. If travelling is criminalised and provision for Gypsys disappears so quickly and with such little fuss, who will ever re-establish the political respect for the right to travel and live on your own land?
For more articles about the Criminal Justice Act and Public Order Act 1994 - covering the build-up, the resistance, the consequences, plus commentary of discussions in the House of Commons about it click here.